I knew going into this album that it was going to hurt. Little did I know that it would actually break my heart.
To understand why this album broke me the way it did, you need to understand the story behind it. Sufjan’s mother died in December 2012, and this album is about him mourning her loss. But it goes further than that. His mother, Carrie, left him when he was just one year old. She suffered from schizophrenia, depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. She left because she felt she wasn’t equipped to raise her family. When Sufjan was five, his mother married Lowell, who worked at a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon. There, Sufjan spent summers with Lowell and his mother, but a few years later she left Lowell, and that’s when Sufjan hardly saw her apart from a few occasional letters. Sufjan grew really close to his stepfather, Lowell, and he now runs the record label Sufjan is a part of. Throughout his mother’s absence, Sufjan felt a longing to know her and be near her, as every child does, and multiple times he pleads this on the record. Soon the news came that Carrie was passing away. Here is Sufjan’s words from his interview on Pitchfork (I highly recommend reading it to gain a deeper insight on the story behind the album).
“She had stomach cancer, and it was a quick demise. We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.”
So after the devastation of her death, Sufjan went about writing songs as a cathartic release. Here is the outcome: a beautifully, heartbreaking record of unconditional love, brokenness, and forgiveness. But it’s far away from an uplifting record. Sufjan even says, “Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it.” It’s brutally and explicitly honest, and it’s probably too much for some.
The album begins with a lightly picked guitar in “Death With Dignity.” The first words we hear are Spirit of my silence, I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you, and I don’t know where to begin. As Sufjan tries to find the right words in the silence of his mother’s death. In the end, we hear Sufjan’s broken surrender, I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end. He faces the devastating truth that he will never be able to be near his mother. You’ll never see us again.
Track two, “Should Have Known Better,” deals with regretting not grieving after his mother’s death. I should have wrote a letter, grieve when I happen to grieve. When something this tragic happens, sometimes we try to hide it, pretend it isn’t a big deal and go on with our lives. But holding it in only causes more pain. In the song, Sufjan remembers his mother leaving him in a video store when he was Three, maybe four, and regretting not writing her a letter explaining his empty feelings. But all is not dark as we soon hear My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination. The memories of being a child, so full of joy and innocence and love, wash over Sufjan and the listener.
Now I must warn, this album is heavy and sometimes may be too much for some, especially Christian listeners. In song three, “All of Me Wants All of You,” Sufjan mourns over a one sided relationship, but yet desires to place all he has into it in an attempt to be loved and to replace the void his mother had given him. It contains the brutally personal line You checked your texts while I masturbated. It accurately portrays his loneliness and need for love and fulfillment while not receiving it.
An explicit line also appears on track ten, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” as Sufjan softly cries out, There’s blood on this blade, f**k me I’m falling apart. While a lot would hear this and turn away, this album requires us to see things from his view. The song itself is about falling into deep depression and self harm, but yet he knows he’s descending down the wrong path, so he cries out in frustration, and sometimes only a profanity can portray the feelings. If we’re honest, in times like these-falling into the act of self harm-I’m sure we’d say the say thing. Yet he realizes there is no shade from the cross, no place to hide from God’s love and grace; but it also shows the truth that Christians aren’t immune to brokenness. We face it just as hard as everyone else.
No doubt the saddest song on the album, and one of the saddest songs I have ever heard, is “Fourth of July.” The song that documents his mother’s death. It’s a conversation between him and his mother, alternating in each verse and chorus. Sufjan cries by his mother’s side as she softly speaks, Well you do enough talk, my little hawk, why do you cry? Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook Burn or the Fourth of July. We’re all gonna die (in case you didn’t know, the Tillamook burn was a massive bush fire that happened in Oregon). Our inevitable fate hits hard, and no matter how bright and happy things may be (i.e. the Fourth of July), death always comes. It was at this line, however, that I broke: Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right, then from Sufjan, The hospital asked should be body be cast before I say goodbye, my star in the sky. The end of the song repeats the line We’re all gonna die over and over until it softly fades away as a life that’s about to end. However, in the midst of death, his mother tells him to Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light. All things come to an end, we need to make the most of it. What’s heartbreaking here is that it seems Carrie never did.
Track seven, “The Only Thing,” deals with Sufjan’s suicidal thoughts. Do I care if I survive this, I know, in a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost? Again, it speaks on the subject without a barrier. The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm, cross hatch, warm bath, holiday inn after dark…. in this song we find the very thing that keeps him going: God’s grace, his faith, and the wonders of the world around him Signs and wonders, Sea lion caves in the dark.
Track nine, “John My Beloved,” is the most explicitly “Christian” song here. It’s a conversation between him and Jesus about the brokenness that erupts from his mother and flows into every part of his life, including relationships with others. So can we contend peacefully, before my history ends? Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head. There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking I’m dead. But we also have the comforting words of Jesus as Sufjan remembers Christ speaking to His disciples about His victory over death and His resurrection. Beloved my John, I’ll carry on, counting my cards down to one, and when I am dead, come visit my bed, my fossil is bright in the sun.
Skipping ahead to the final track, “Blue Bucket of Gold,” we end the album in a crushing manner. He pleads for someone to be there for him like his mother never was. Friend, why don’t you love me?…. Raise your right hand, tell me you want me in your life, or raise a red flag, just when I want you in my life. When it seems everyone has abandoned him, he cries, Lord, touch me with lightning. The song then ends with an empty howl of ghostly noises until the album slowly fades out. Here are his words in a radio interview: “I didn’t know (my mom) well in a lot of ways and I didn’t know how to say goodbye on the last track with articulation. So I quit playing piano and vocals and just stopped. I wanted to surrender her to the beyond with noises that sound bigger than just me.” It’s the act of letting go that’s the hardest. And in looking back, we can see his unconditional love he had for her that hid beneath the surface, no matter how she may have treated him.
So what can I say about the music on this record? Well, to sum it up, it’s an acoustic, folk album, with little to no percussion. All we get is Sufjan with his guitar and piano. It’s beautifully simplistic, yet with otherworldly sounds taking place in the mix and at the end of most songs, it creates a heavy, tangible atmosphere that draws the listener in and leads him/her to a mess of tears. It captures the reality of grief so perfectly that it made me feel as if I’d lost someone dear to me myself. It’s given me a whole new view on those around me and the ones I love. It’s made me appreciate them much more than I ever had. I can confidently say that it has transformed. And above all, it makes me think of the ones God loves, His children, and how every day He loses them, just as Sufjan lost his mother. What’s even more heartrending is that even though we turn away from Him, like Sufjan’s mother did to him, He still loves us and wants to be with us. Sufjan’s cries here reflect God’s heart so perfectly. I can’t imagine the grief our Lord feels, but this album brings us close to it. It broke my heart for the better.
Despite it’s brutal language and depressing subject matter, I can’t recommend this album enough. I simply adore it and every song it bring us. Lyrically it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard, and musically I haven’t heard anything as mesmerizingly beautiful, and yet so heartbreaking. It takes my breath away every time. It’s made me feel so much pain for Sufjan and others who have gone and are going through similar things. It’s a wake up call every one (especially Christians) should hear at least once. I’m sorry Sufjan, I truly am.
Here is the full album if you’d like to hear: Carrie and Lowell, full album.