Carrie and Lowell: Conversations with Death 7

I first fell in love with Sufjan Stevens’ music in 2004; I was fifteen and a friend put “Romulus” on a mix cd. In the song, a young boy, growing up in Romulus, Michigan, tells of his distant relationship with his mother, who has moved away to Oregon. My favorite verse, the part I can’t think of without crying, is below:

Once when we moved away,
She came to Romulus for a day.
Her Chevrolet broke down.
We prayed it’d never be fixed or found.
We touched her hair, we touched her hair.
We touched her hair, we touched her hair.

It’s one of the more subtly tragic moments in music: a young boy and his mother, trapped together in the car, and the boy desperate that the car remain broken, that his mother remain with him. He reaches out for the smallest touch. 

Listening to it at the age of 15, I couldn’t imagine it was autobiographical. I was too naive, and Stevens seemed too successful, too happy to have come from such a depressed backstory. 

Last year, in an interview with Pitchfork magazine, Stevens candidly relates that his mother left home when he was one. She was schizophrenic and addicted, and removed herself because she felt it would be best for her children. Stevens reflects, “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.”

Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ elegiac album following the death of his mother, Carrie, to cancer in 2012. I’m writing on it here as part of Murder Ballad Monday’s “Conversations with Death” series. As with most elegies, the album laments Carrie’s death, but it is unlike more typical tributes in many ways. Instead, lyrically and musically a work which seems artless and simple proves itself, listen after listen, to be endlessly complex: there are grapplings with divinities, mythical allusions, memories we are given in fragments. It is Sufjan Stevens at his best, and it is an important contribution to the canon of elegies.

Enough Love

I don’t think I’m alone in often getting hung-up on a particular track when I initially listen to an album, of finding one song more striking at first listen, skipping ahead to it or repeating it more often. For me, “Fourth of July” is that track on this album.

It presents a conversation between Stevens and his mother.

The evil had 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?
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.
[…]
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,
My little Versailles.
The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky?
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light.
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.

“We’re all gonna die” is repeated over and over again.

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