Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Emotional Review of Sufjan Stevens' 'Carrie & Lowell'

By: Kelly McClure

More and more people are coming out of the closet as Sufjan fans. There was a time not too long ago when I'd be made fun of for my open love of him (and equally so) his music, but now people know better

I think that for the most part the common frump finds it embarrassing to have emotions. Unless they're ironic emotions. Crying along with Taylor Swift about how she leaked through her tampon is one thing, but singing along to someone's song about their dead mom is another. I get it though because, just like Sufjan, my own estranged Mother died recently. Just one of the many things that Sufjan and I have in common, aside from being complete soul mates.

(The title of this post should really be: All the Different Ways I Can Make This Be About Me.)

I first learned of Sufjan many years ago when a track of his was included on a VICE compilation that came sealed in an issue of the magazine. They used to do that for awhile and it was a great way to learn about bands without having to hunt and peck all over the internet. I still very much value a "thing." A physical "thing." I can't remember the exact track, but it had something to do with blood and wasn't "You Are the Blood." Maybe someone can remind me, because it was a really great song. It made me immediately love him in the intimate way that only a person singing a song can be loved. There's a special kind of love reserved for music, and I've felt that love for Sufjan Stevens for awhile now.

I've since gone on to write about him in a million different ways. If you Google "Kelly McClure Sufjan Stevens" you get THIS. I've seen him perform in multiple cities, multiple times. I'm moving to New Orleans next month and have already bought tickets to his show there in May. All signs point to his being the first show I go to on my new home turf. I've gone to his Christmas shows. I've yelped with joy over his theatrics and balloon drops. I've yadda yadda yadda. He's mine. He's MY thing. I feel pretty intense about it all.

When I started reading news bits about his new album, Carrie & Lowell,  I couldn't wait to hear it - and immediately pre-ordered it - but it also became the only album in the history of albums that I feared listening to. The album is about the death of his estranged mother three years ago and since my Mom (also very much estranged) died on October 31, 2013, I knew that his new songs would be nothing less than extremely beautiful repeated punches to the gut and face.

My pre-ordered album is probably floating through the air to me as I type this, but it's available for streaming on PITCHFORK (and other places) as of this past Sunday. I've been putting off listening to it, for obvious reasons, but now I'm gonna let 'er rip for the first time and probably cry until the neighbors call the police or I turn into a salty mist and cease to be.

So here is a track by track review of each song and how it made me feel and what it made me think about my own dead Mom because, again, this post is all about me.

"Death With Dignity"

I was very much afraid of being around my Mom when she was alive. Her mood could turn on a dime. We'd be driving along going to Target or something, laughing and having fun, and then I'd drink the last sip of her can of Coke and she'd turn into a monster. But now that she's gone I look for her everywhere. I see her in every little blonde woman who passes me on the street. I think she's trying to deliver me messages via birds I see, either out the window or when I'm walking around. Every shadow in my apartment is her ghost. One time I smoked a cigarette in the kitchen and put my hand up against the wall and pretended I was holding her hand. Almost every member of my family has had some profound dream about her but me. On the day before this past Halloween, which marked the one year anniversary of her death, I had an appointment booked for a seance and was really excited to maybe get the chance to hear from her, but the seance lady cancelled and I took that as a sign that my Mom didn't then, and still doesn't, want to talk to me.

"Your apparition passes through me, in the willows, and five red hens, you'll never see us again."

"Should Have Known Better"

Almost two years ago I wrote my Mom a letter about how I'm full on gay and met the love of my life and was about to get married and wanted her to be a part of my life. Weeks went by and I didn't hear anything, and then my mom died. She died about three weeks after getting that letter. It was my last, and greatest attempt at having the kind of relationship with her that I had always wanted, and nothing came of it.

"I should have known better, nothing can be changed, the past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere." 

"All of Me Wants All of You"

I could be wrong, but it seems like this song is about how Sufjan turned to empty sex to cope with parts of his grieving process. I didn't personally go that route. I was in a committed (soon to be married) relationship and, although it did take a bit of time, I functioned normally - sex wise. I did definitely start drinking every day at 11AM though.

"I'm just a ghost you walk right through."

"Drawn to the Blood" 

Earlier on in my writing career, when I still lived with my parents, I'd try to share my stuff with my Mom and she'd say something like "I don't need to read it, I know what kind of stuff you write." But then when I flew to Illinois after her funeral to help  my Dad clear out her massive piles of stuff, I found stacks of magazines that I had written for, and newspaper clippings from all throughout the years. My Dad lives alone in that house now and it's all but empty. Every time I talk to him on the phone he says he just walks around saying "unbelievable."

"What did I do to deserve this? Now, how did this happen?" 


One time when I was about eight or ten I went to a Cubs game with my parents and a few other members of my family. My Mom burnt my right wrist somehow with her cigarette and called me a spoiled brat. I can't remember what I had been doing. The memory fluctuates between the burn being accidental, or on purpose. I still have a very visible scar from it and I like looking at it now. The memory of it has changed form that of fear, shame, or pain to being more like a souvenir of her. You can make the saddest memory into a happy one after someone dies.

"Remember I pulled at your shirt, I dropped the ashtray on the floor. I just wanted to be near you."

"Fourth of July"

My Mom had this way of self sabotaging things she was excited about. Holidays, graduations, all the way down to a day at the mall. It was like she'd spend so much time thinking about a thing and planning how to make it perfect, that there was no way she felt she could live up to her own expectations for it, so she'd just act nuts. I'd always feel so bad for her. There was always a pit in my stomach waiting for that moment when her forced smile turned into a frown.

"Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?"

"The Only Thing" 

One of the semi-not mentally healthy things I've taken away from the experience of losing someone so immediately close to me is that life and death are both completely ridiculous and meaningless. The fact that you can go from living so many years, worrying about so many things, to one morning not existing at all really proves that we all worry about the stupidest shit. I feel each day as a separate thing now, and not just a solid ruler of experience leading from here to there. I worry about much less, but am also terrified because I know that I'm gonna die and that feels real now. My Dad walked into an emergency room with a wife and walked out without one, and that's it. That's life. It's the snap of fingers.

"Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know. In the veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?" 

"Carrie & Lowell"

My Dad likes to tell me this story about how he and my Mom danced and kissed all the way through the song "Knights in White Satin" at some event or school dance (I forget) that they went to. Thinking about happy memories like that feels like an anchor around your neck when such great potential for a happy life all went to shit.

"Like a dead horse, meadowlark drive your arrow."

"John My Beloved"

My Mom was a cheerleader all through school and was very blonde and very beautiful.  My Dad will talk endlessly about how he just couldn't believe how pretty she was when they first started dating. Not that he thought she got less pretty, but he says it as though he felt really shocked and honored that she would have chosen him out of all the other guys she could have had. She used to bleach my hair when I was really little in an effort to make me, I don't know what, more like her I guess. I know she thought I was funny and smart, but I always got the sense she was disappointed that I came out looking more like my dad and less like her. I have the same movements and gestures as her though. I carry my body like she did. And I like that now. I'm conscious of it sometimes and it reminds me of her and makes me feel like she's around.

"Such a waste, your beautiful face." 

"No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"

My family has never been outwardly religious, aside from a few members, but it's safe to say that we all believe in "something." Some sort of higher power. That being said, when I think of my Mom I don't think of her as a "religious person." Nothing about her reminds me of religion in any way. Her memory isn't tied to that. For her funeral service we just kept it really small, only immediate members of the family. There was no official person there to say any words for her, so my Uncle took it upon himself to get up at the front of the room and read some religious stuff from his phone. It didn't evoke any emotions from me at all and didn't seem to  have anything to do with her. I think he tried to make himself cry at one point. I just sat by my Dad and stared at my Papa's burial spot that was behind him. I would much rather have heard stories about her life because I really didn't know much about it. I cried really hard at one point and made a snorting noise and felt embarrassed, and then felt stupid and selfish for feeling embarrassed.

"There's blood on that blade, fuck me I'm falling apart." 

"Blue Bucket of Gold"

My Dad and my Aunt and Uncle and I drove together to my Mom's service and my Dad put on a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young CD because that was one of my Mom's favorite bands. Listening to "Wooden Ships" and looking out the window at the Yarn Barns and DQs that pepper the scenery of this particular section of suburban Illinois my Dad lives in was my favorite part of the whole service. Favorite in the sense that it had the most to do with her.

"Raise your right hand, tell me you want me in your life. Raise your red flag, just when I want you in my life."