#6. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens has long been known for his exceptional songwriting, but never has he made an album as naked and intimate as Carrie and Lowell. Named after his mother and stepfather, the album explores his relationship with his estranged mother, from his childhood leading up to her death in 2012. The subject matter leads this to be his most heart-wrenching album to date, and also his most cathartic.

This is Stevens’ most consistent album yet, with each song more powerful than the last. And yet somehow, despite its constant subject matter and its cohesive, stripped-down instrumentation, Carrie and Lowell sidesteps monotony and remains fresh at every turn. Just like Stevens, the autobiographical album traverses a range of emotions. In “Eugene,” (named after a city in Oregon, the state in which he spent some of his childhood summers with his mother and stepfather) he recounts fond memories of a swimming instructor mispronouncing his name—“he called me Subaru.” The song then slips into the present and addresses his depression following his mother’s death, something he grapples with throughout much of the album. In “Should Have Known Better,” Stevens addresses the difficulty of coming to terms with the past, as he sings about being abandoned in a video store by his mother, and it's hard to blame him when he laments “holding down [his] feelings.”

The centerpiece of the album is “Fourth of July,” which serves as a posthumous conversation between him and his mother on the night of her death. It’s enough to move anyone to tears, and as the song crescendos his mother tries to console him by saying “we’re all gonna die.” As Stevens repeats this phrase over and over at the end of the song, it feels less like a cry of hopeless despair and more like a quiet sigh of clarity. Rarely has somebody so beautifully captured in music the exact moment in which they fully understood, and embraced, mortality.

While Carrie and Lowell may contain the heaviest subject matter of any of his albums, these lyrical idiosyncrasies, coupled with the serenity of the music, prevent it from feeling bleak. His voice climbs in the opening track, “Death With Dignity,” as he sings “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you.” This line sets the tone for the entire album. Stevens has dealt with loneliness and loss, and grown from abandonment to absolution. The beauty that it brings is illuminating.