I've been a Sufjan fan for a number of years. With that comes not always knowing what he's going to do with his next album. After a few great albums in the early to mid-2000s (Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois), he took three years off and then came out with a couple of instrumental albums that I was not that interested in (The BQE and Run Rabbit Run). In 2010, he came out with Age of Adz, an album that was wildly different than anything before it, and one that took me a while to appreciate.
After a five year hiatus, Sufjan finally comes back with a simple, beautiful, yet haunting album, Carrie and Lowell. Carrie is Sufjan's mother, who left the family when Sufjan was very young and later died. The album is mostly about dealing with her death, and all kinds of feelings he had during the grieving process. Near the end of the opening track, Death with Dignity, he sings, "I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end."
After describing how his mother left in the second track, Should Have Known Better, he grieves, "I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / A bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling". Eugene continues the sad reflection as Sufjan remembers his mother after her death and wonders how he'll go on ("What's left is only bittersweet...Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away").
One of the most haunting songs on the album is Fourth of July, where Sufjan and his mother converse as she dies. She asks multiple times, "Why do you cry?" and "What did you learn from the Tillamook burn or the Fourth of July?" The answer, that is repeated softly eight times at the end: "We're all gonna die."
Sufjan continues his grief on "The Only Thing" as he sings, "Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow." However, in the next track, "John the Beloved", after admitting his brokenness ("I am a man with a heart that offends / With it's lonely and greedy demands"), Sufjan is able to cry out to One who can help ("Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me").
In the second to last track, he seems to go back to losing hope again as he talks about his various ways of coping with his mother's death ("search of the capsule I lost", "get drunk to get laid", "blood on that blade"), finishing by saying, "There's no Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."
Sufjan closes the album beautifully with "Blue Bucket of Gold". In a radio interview, earlier this year, he spoke about this song: "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."
As I reflect on the words of this album, I'm struck again with how honest and despondent they are. While I haven't lost anyone super close at this point in my life, leading me to grieve in this way, I know that this level of grief is likely to hit me at some point. I'm thankful to have an album that doesn't shy away from the sting of death or try to explain it away.
This album reminds me of an incredible book on the pain of death, Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. After losing his son tragically in a climbing accident, Dr. Wolterstorff wrestles through his own bereavement and feels the isolation that Sufjan expresses above. However, near the end of the book, he sees purpose and redemption in his great loss:
“God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God… and great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness, the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power, but sent his beloved Son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.In many ways, I like that Sufjan's album doesn't end with some great triumph of hope. In this way, I believe it normalizes those long seasons of grief where hope and comfort might be out of reach. However, I do agree with Dr. Wolterstorff that our grief can and should point us to the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who shares in our suffering. To put it another way, there is shade in the shadow of the cross.