Sufjan Stevens and I share something in common: we both grew up spending summers in Eugene, Oregon. I used to go with my family to visit my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins, often for weeks or months at a time. Stevens went to stay with his mother and stepfather for a few years, from the ages of 5 to 8.
The instant I heard that Stevens’ new forthcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, would center around Oregon, a rush of excitement flooded me (there was even a track specifically called “Eugene!”). Stevens obviously has a history of paying tribute to different states, and so I looked forward to putting the album on and letting Stevens’ always-exquisite songwriting take me on a trip back to a place that I hold dear. I knew that the album would also deal with the death of Stevens’ mother, but I subconsciously pushed that to the back of my mind. I wanted to focus on Oregon.
I immediately searched for the lyrics to “Eugene,” expecting waves of nostalgia to wash over me. Near the beginning, Stevens mentions that “wonders never cease” — there it was, exactly what I wanted to see. That’s exactly how I felt about Eugene as a child. There was never a shortage of things to do, never a lack of places to explore — picking blueberries, feeding the goats at Lone Pine Farms, eating ice cream at Prince Puckler’s, paddling canoes through a little plastic course at the Lane County Fair, wading through the McKenzie River, watching the beloved Eugene Emeralds play single-A baseball. Some of the best moments of my young life were spent there.
As I delved into the lyrics to “Eugene,” I read about Stevens’ innocuous memories of taking swimming lessons, playing at Emerald Park, eating lemon yogurt, and pulling at his mother’s shirt. But as I continued to read, I realized that over and over again, there were variations on a theme: “I just wanted to be near you,” “And now I want to be near you,” and so on. Those seemingly innocuous memories were not just there to fill space — they are some of the only real, tangible, non-traumatic memories that Stevens has of his mother at all.
The song ends with this: “Now I’m drunk and afraid / wishing the world would go away / What’s the point of singing songs / if they’ll never even hear you?” I wanted so badly to be able to relate to Stevens’ “Oregon” album on a personal level — and in a peripheral way, I do relate. But the experiences that make up the core of Carrie & Lowell are not my experiences, and I can’t pretend otherwise.
Carrie & Lowell is an immensely beautiful, personal, delicate, and devastating collection of songs dealing with Stevens’ troubled relationship with his mother, Carrie, who died of stomach cancer in 2012. He sings about the present, documenting his attempts to come to terms with her death, but also keeps an eye on the past, alluding to those three summers he spent in Oregon as a child with Carrie and her husband, Lowell.
“[My mother] left when I was 1, so I have no memory of her and my father being married. She just wandered off. She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father. It wasn’t until I was 5 that Carrie married Lowell. He worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and we spent three summers out there—that’s when we actually saw our mother the most.” –Sufjan Stevens, Interview with Pitchfork.
Stevens has said that his relationship with his mother was complicated at best and outright neglectful at worst. After those fleeting summers in Oregon during his childhood, they had very minimal contact, right up to his mother’s death. Stevens, reflecting on how he felt when she passed away, said, “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.”
The opening track, “Death With Dignity”, sets the despondent tone for Carrie & Lowell. He probes his own loneliness (“Spirit of my silence, I can hear you / but I’m afraid to be near you / And I don’t know where to begin”) and the complicated nature of his relationship with his mother (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you / but every road leads to an end”). Perhaps the most devastating track is “Fourth of July”. Atmospheric crescendos swirl on top of the most haunting piano chords imaginable, as Stevens alternates between speaking his own thoughts, and those of his mother, all at her deathbed. He sings of “sitting at the bed with the halo at your head” and “the hospital asked should the body be cast.” He then channels her thoughts, singing “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” and “Make the most of your life, while it is rife / while it is light.” The song ends with Stevens laying it as bare as possible, repeating the words “We’re all going to die.”
After listening to Stevens delve into despair and explore life and death on the album, it makes my parallel memories of Eugene seem trivial. When I think of the Fourth of July, I think of visiting my uncle and aunt with my wife a couple years ago, eating barbecued chicken and watching fireworks in the center of town. When Stevens thinks of the Fourth of July, he thinks of his mother’s death — “The evil it spread like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly / What could I have said to raise you from the dead? / Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?” When I think of Oregon video stores, my memories involve renting ‘Yellow Submarine’ from Flicks and Pics as a 6-year-old, my mom and grandpa presciently thinking I would enjoy it. When Stevens thinks of Oregon video stores, his memories involve getting abandoned by his mother — on “Should Have Known Better”, he sings, “When I was three / three maybe four / she left us at that video store.”
Admittedly, I felt foolish in my unabashed desire to have my own personal “Oregon” album, especially in light of the deep and intense subject matter. You can tell that writing and recording Carrie & Lowell was a profoundly cathartic, intimate experience, and I felt a twinge of guilt for trying to capitalize on that. But then I realized that there’s nothing wrong with feeling sentimental from hearing references to places I love. When Stevens mentions sea lion caves on the Oregon coast on “The Only Thing”, I think of running through a cold wind on the beach with my cousins, making sure to just barely avoid the frigid water. When he mentions Spencer Butte in “All of Me Wants All of You”, I think of my late grandparents’ house nearby, right in the same hills. I remember “going fishing” with my sister on the balcony, or taking their telescope out on summer nights and looking out over the whole city. When he mentions covered bridges in “Carrie & Lowell”, I think of driving with my uncle and aunt to whatever lake was nearby and passing through those ubiquitous bridges.
Additionally, the album’s softness and pastoral musical quality — spare, fragile acoustic guitar, subtle choral refrains, Stevens’ almost-angelic singing — not only complement the deep sadness and agony of his lyrics, but also capture the spirit and feeling of Eugene in a potent way. The album just sounds like the fir trees that line the streets. It sounds green and misty and leafy and gorgeous.
Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell helped solidify in my mind that the creator and the listener have equal access to the emotional power of music. Though I can never feel what Stevens felt and never fully understand his very personal and specific pain, I can savor the beautiful memories I have of Oregon and feel grateful for Stevens’ gift of gracefully conjuring those memories through his music. That gift of his is something I will never take for granted.