Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

‘Carrie and Lowell’ is provocative and moving

In the song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” from his 2007 album, “Come On, Feel The Illinoise”, Sufjan Stevens sings: “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / look beneath the floorboards / for the secrets I have hid.” \

With these lines – which reference the serial killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr. (who hid his victims under his house) and the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart (who hid his victim’s body under his floorboards) – Stevens not only sympathizes with two people who have committed terrible sins, but he joins them, revealing that even on his best behavior, he is no better – he is really just like them.

With this line, Stevens begs his listener to remove the “floor boards” covering his sins and bring his evil secrets to light. Stevens has always understood the value of being exposed – much of his music deals with instability, internal struggle, troubled and confusing relationships, and issues of faith.

On “Carrie & Lowell”, Stevens’ most recent album, some of the floorboards have been ripped up: there is little left to the imagination. The album is a response to the death of his mother in 2012 and it is a staggering, naked, provocative and moving examination of memory, mourning and the daunting task of moving on.

The listener is asked not to condemn, but to forgive: to accept this honesty and defenselessness as a look beneath the floorboards at questions of life, loss and love without offering many answers.

At the beginning of Book IV of Confessions, Augustine writes, “Bear with me, I beseech thee, and give me the grace to retrace in my present memory the devious ways of my past errors and thus be able to ‘offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving.'” Augustine then describes the grief and resulting depravity into which he sank after the death of a dear friend.

He implores his audience (and God, himself) to allow him the “self indulgence” of recounting his wickedness in order that his recollection may be an act of repentance and his life may become a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. In many ways, this same posture of vulnerability, humility and reconciliation is adopted on “Carrie & Lowell.”

Many have considered “Carrie and Lowell” to be self-indulgent or too personal, but if we are following the Augustinian model, I disagree. Stevens is recounting his visceral experience with grief.

Asking hard questions is part of Stevens’ process, but another part of that process (and a responsibility of any artist) is being honest about the ways he pursued answers, even if his audience perceives this admission as personal, self-indulgent or wicked.

Stevens’ winding ways eventually lead him to a place of surrender and he acknowledges that the world cannot offer him the answers he needs. This is an album of conversion which focuses much more on the sinner before than the redeemed after.

There’s a line in a song by “The Mountain Goats” that goes: “When we walk out in the sunlight / we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes / when the real reason we don’t like it / is that it makes us wonder if we’re dying.”

I think this line provides an interesting perspective: sometimes we’re more comfortable coming up with an easy explanation to avoid death. Stevens doesn’t avoid much on this album – he asks necessary and natural questions. Even if he doesn’t provide adequate or complete answers, sometimes yearning is enough.

This is the kind of art worth participating in as a reader, viewer or listener: art that honestly identifies an experience, asks difficult questions and seeks true answers.

I’d like to end with a quote from David Dark who wrote a great book on cultural discernment and art, Everyday Apocalypse:

“I’m grateful for and in dire need of whatever art can keep me awake and alive to the mystery, whatever keeps me paying attention, whatever reminds me that none of us (and no ideology) are possessors of the final say.”


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