The Death of Meaning

Even if you’ve heard nothing about the new Sufjan Stevens album Carrie and Lowell, the cover should make its purpose clear. But I somehow managed to remain willfully ignorant until the moment when I put it on the stereo. It must have been a defense mechanism, because the minute his voice entered the warbling folk of the first track, I was already in tears.

It certainly didn’t help that the anniversary of my mother’s final hospitalization was only a few days away. For most of the past year, I’ve done a good job of not thinking about that time. Once the calendar turned to April, though, the brutally difficult weeks between the start of her steep decline and the day she passed away in hospice care were impossible to push away. Until I started listening to Carrie and Lowell, I didn’t know whether I wanted to commemorate the period or simply act as normal as possible. As my response to the record made abundantly clear, however, there was no choice to be made. My body was going to relive those days of terribly confused emotions whether I liked it or not.

Sufjan Stevens is not the easiest musician to understand. Although much has been made of his religious belief, his songs are a far cry from the clichés of Christian rock. And there’s enough irony in his self-presentation to make people wonder whether they are truly as sincere as they initially seem to be. Perhaps the best analogy would be the writer Flannery O’Connor, whose faith never stopped her from pondering the darkest riddles of everyday life.

Adding to the complexity of Stevens’ work is his gift for writing stream-of-consciousness lyrics in character. On perhaps his greatest album, Illinoise, he conjures children of various ages and, most chillingly, the famous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. At times, it can be difficult to figure out what his words are trying to communicate. But they do such a good job of conjuring different personalities that listeners are willing to tolerate a degree of inscrutability.

With Carrie and Lowell, however, it rapidly becomes apparent that the only character Stevens wishes to speak through is his own. To be sure, he gives us glimpses of his eponymous mother and stepfather, whose recent deaths inspired the album. But they are always refracted through the prism of his feelings for and about them, which only sheds light on the history he shared with them in highly scattered form.

There’s no shortage of detail. Because Stevens provides little context for his reminiscences, though, all his listeners know is that they must matter. In much of his previous work, like the stunning “Casimir Pulaski Day” from Illinoise, the desire to communicate a story, however obliquely, compelled him to lay out grounds for interpretation. Carrie and Lowell makes no such concessions.

Had I first listened to the album under different circumstances, I might have found this refusal too much to bear. Yet since my mind was already awash in a surfeit of memories, each one seemingly bobbing up at random, I understood Stevens’ impulse to catalogue without explication, even if I couldn’t really make much sense of the experiences to which he refers.

One thing I did comprehend, though, is how conflicted the album sounds. When Stevens sings “I forgive you mother” on its opening track, it might seem that he is simply relinquishing resentment at her leaving him. But subsequent lyrics make it clear that her death has stirred up plenty of memories that can’t be made retroactively happy. Some of them concern her decline, clearly. Others go much further back: “When I was three, maybe four/She left us at that video store.” And while he isn’t out to settle scores, it’s nevertheless apparent that redeeming his relationship with her or his stepfather Lowell is not the sort of task that can be managed easily.

In retrospect, the most difficult thing about my own mother’s passing was this sense of unfinished business, exacerbated in her case because her multiple sclerosis was already robbing her of the capacity to recall the past years before the end. In the three and a half years that I cared for her on a daily basis, after she and my father had moved nearby, I was confronted with all manner of recollections that I wanted to share with her. I could never tell, though, whether I was doing more than writing on a blank slate incapable of making any more permanent records.

I suppose that’s why my attempts to put these memories into words mostly resulted in a cluttered mess. Almost everything I said seemed to bounce off of her, making every “conversation” feel like a disordered stream of consciousness. While I am not sure of the circumstances surrounding Carrie and Lowell’s deaths, I was struck by how well the album captures this rebounding of one-sided communication. It’s as if stories needed to stick to something outside us in order to cohere.

Perhaps the most haunting song on the album is its concluding number “Blue Bucket of Gold”, which sounds as if it is one of the tracks which the liner notes informs us were “recorded on an iPhone in a hotel room in Klamath Falls, Oregon.” In it, Stevens pleads for a verbal response — “Tell me you want me in your life” — from someone or something remote and impassive: “My blue bucket of gold/Friend, why don’t you love me?”

I have no idea what specific experiences the imagery in this song alludes to. Nor can I sort out the paradox of a bucket of gold that is blue in color. Yet that does not stop me from tapping into the sense of isolation and abandonment that the song conveys. It transports me to a place where thinking seems futile and feeling cannot be reduced to meaning.

I can’t guarantee that others will respond to Carrie and Lowell as I did. Indeed, those who have previously found Stevens’ stripped down folkisms precious will have a hard time making headway with the album. But if you are moved by the delicate beauty of his voice and the simplicity of his songwriting, there’s a good chance that listening to the record will have a powerful impact. And it might even help you to understand how little you understand or, more importantly, need to.


Image courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty Records.

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