Living Through Grief with Sufjan Stevens and Phil Elverum

In 2012, Sufjan Stevens lost his mother.

It’s fair to say that Stevens’ relationship with his mother was complicated at best. She had abandoned him repeatedly as a child, staying sometimes for days and once, when married to his stepfather, for five years before leaving again. She died after a long battle with stomach cancer, leaving Stevens confused and standing on the precipice of complete despair.

And so he wrote an amazing album called Carrie and Lowell. Named after his mother and stepfather (who now runs Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty), Carrie and Lowell laid bare the depth and power of Stevens’ grief. It was sometimes frightening to listen to. Stevens was at such a low point when creating these songs that even those things that previously had sustained him – his faith chief among them – were not enough anymore. The album is painful to listen to, sparse and bare to an unflinching degree, and I can only imagine how painful it was to live through.

But in many ways, that’s what art is for – to give us a way to live through it. Stevens has said that creating Carrie and Lowell was not cathartic for him, that as the songs kept coming, he kept feeling worse. The album bears this out, closing with “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” on which he descends into self-destructive behavior, and “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which finds him reaching out desperately, with no reply. It’s dark and difficult, a clear memoir of a place I certainly hope he has not stayed in.

And if I have hope that Stevens is clawing his way back to the light, much of it comes from Carrie and Lowell Live, his extraordinary new concert document. Stevens took these songs – some of which I can’t fathom how he could sing more than once – out on the road, and fashioned an affecting and beautiful show from them. All of the songs from the album are here, but they are reinvented. They’re fuller, bigger, they radiate life in surprising ways. They’re still haunting – they’re some of the most haunting songs you will ever hear – but they feel like progress, like kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, as a wise man once said.

The show still begins with “Death with Dignity” (after a brief benediction in the form of “Redford”) and ends with “Blue Bucket of Gold,” but within those boundaries it opens itself up to new possibilities. “Should Have Known Better” takes the light electronic foundation of the original and runs with it, illuminating the second half (“Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing…”) with glorious synths and a small choir of singers. “All of Me Wants All of You” is a revelation, beginning a lot like Genesis’ “Mama,” all electronic toms and dirge-y keys in place of the strummy acoustics of the studio version. When it erupts into a blistering synthesizer solo, it feels like an entirely new song.

That’s the overall effect of Carrie and Lowell Live – these feel like new songs, or at least new ways of looking at familiar ones. Even “No Shade,” performed in a similar way to its studio counterpart, feels new – the way Stevens sings it and plays it here sounds less like a man on the edge of despair. It sounds like a man looking back on despair, remembering it and honoring it, and inviting his audience to honor it with him. Grief and mourning are important, difficult though they may be, and Carrie and Lowell Live walks a fine line, acknowledging their power while not celebrating it.

The reinvention is so complete here that when Stevens adds two songs from the manic The Age of Adz (“Vesuvius” and “Futile Devices”), they fit right in. “Blue Bucket of Gold” still finds Stevens reaching out, but the blissful 12-minute ambient outro provides a closure, a beauty that the album version eschewed. It feels for all the world like healing, like catharsis, like crying out through pain and being answered. (That Stevens chooses to encore with a goofy cover of “Hotline Bling” only underlines the notion that this has all been about putting grief behind him.)

I’m glad to see this get an official release, because Carrie and Lowell Live is now an essential part of the story Stevens began with the original album. Together they lead you through Stevens’ darkest places, first from within and then from without, showing that while grief is heavy and painful and it seems impossible while you’re in it, it does fade, it does become manageable. And eventually you will look back on it, not as a distant memory, but as something that helps define you, helps make you who you are. That process, as detailed lovingly here by Sufjan Stevens, is beautiful.

Carrie and Lowell Live is available as a video you can watch for free, and as a soundtrack that you can download for ten bucks.

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In 2016 Phil Elverum lost his wife, and the mother of his child.

Her name was Genevieve Castree, and while she had her own musical legacy as O Paon and Woelv, she is perhaps best known as a frequent contributor to Elverum’s long-running musical project Mount Eerie. In May of 2015, Castree was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, and in July of 2016 she died at home, leaving Elverum to care for their daughter alone. It was the worst possible ending to what should have been a fairy tale story of two musicians in love, and in its wake, Elverum was lost.

And like Stevens, he wrote songs while in the midst of this loss. The new Mount Eerie album is called A Crow Looked at Me, and if you are familiar with Elverum and his work, this one will leave you stunned. Mount Eerie albums are normally enormous, mysterious things, but this one is bare, empty, full of space and longing. There’s precious little here except Elverum’s guitar and quivering everyman voice. Mount Eerie songs have tackled death as a subject for years, in metaphorical and poetic ways, but this one dispenses with all of that, just telling the story of his pain in plain language. It’s like reading Elverum’s diary. It’s almost too real. “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” he sings on “Emptiness Pt. 2,” and it feels like a key insight.

A Crow Looked at Me is an invitation to experience Elverum’s greif along with him, from deep inside it. The liner notes even inform you of when each song was written, in relation to Genevieve’s death. Opener “Real Death” was penned one week after, while closer “Crow,” the latest of these, was penned four months after. That isn’t a long time, so there isn’t much of a journey here, just slow realization of what her absence means, trying to hold on to memories and not collapse while living each day, one at a time.

“Real Death” is in some ways the most raw, the most open. It casts a newly wise eye on Elverum’s canon, speaking as plainly as possible: “Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not, and it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art… When I walk into the room where you were and look into the emptiness instead, all fails, my knees fail, my brain fails, words fail…” The song ends with a story of a package arriving a week after Genevieve died: a backpack she had bought for their daughter, as a surprise. The album is full of these little moments, these horrible everyday things that bring her rushing back, that remind him that death is real.

“I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away, I’m sorry, I had to, and now I’ll move, I’ll move with our daughter, we will ride over water with your ghost underneath the boat,” he sings in the crushingly beautiful “Ravens.” He sings of spreading Genevieve’s ashes in “Seaweed,” written 11 days after her death: “I brought a chair from home, I’m leaving it on the hill facing west and north, and I poured out your ashes on it, I guess so you can watch the sunset, but the truth is that I don’t think of that dust as you, you are the sunset…” In “When I Take Out the Garbage at Night” he explains that he is leaving windows open despite the cold, just in case “something still needs to leave.” In “Forest Fire,” written later, he closes the windows: “I kept them open for as long as I could, but the baby got cold…”

Most of these songs stop abruptly, refusing to offer comfort or release. “My Chasm” finds Elverum wondering, two months after her death, if the people in his life are growing tired of hearing about her. He writes about this in the most ordinary and painful of ways: “I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion and mutual aching to leave, the loss in my life is a chasm I take into town and I don’t want to close it, look at me, death is real…” It’s these details that make A Crow Looked at Me such a powerful and difficult listen, its author in the midst of the worst experience of his life and making us feel it. It’s a travelogue, and its mile markers are simple yet devastating.

The expansive and beautiful “Soria Moria,” written seven months before Genevieve’s death, is the album’s most poetic, giving us a glimpse into life before she was gone. It gives way to the finale, “Crow,” written four months after her death, and it offers a single glimmer of light. Elverum writes of his daughter dreaming of a crow just before one appeared, and it’s a moment that remains meaningful for him, one that helped him get through the pain he details throughout this aching wound of an album.

I wish A Crow Looked at Me did not exist. I wish it didn’t have to. I wish it were not important to live through these hellish experiences, and to talk about them and share them with each other. I have a hard time listening to this, and like Carrie and Lowell, I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to experience. But I’m glad to have it, while at the same time glad to have albums like Carrie and Lowell Live that assure me that this is not the end of the story, that while death is real and grief is like a dark gray cloud covering everything, you can live through it. There is healing, there is hope, there is life.

Buy A Crow Looked at Me here.

Next week, Gorillaz and Jonathan Coulton. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

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