And as I sit within my shallow grave.
Looking for answers, oh, I should’ve saved.
Just out of heaven’s reach, amazing grace.
Well I should’ve known better.

Well, I tried too hard and spoke too soon.
Oh, I got too drunk and shot the moon.
All the while I’d look at you and you’d say,
Oh, you should’ve known better baby.
Oh, you should’ve known better baby.
Oh, you should’ve known better.
Well baby, now I do

—  Should have known better, Possessed by Paul James
Initial Thoughts on Carrie & Lowell

I know this album leaked a couple of weeks ago, but I was hesitant to listen to it. Mostly because I was afraid it wouldn’t be good. There are certain artists (e.g., Radiohead) I cherish so dearly that I get anxious that they’re going to produce a mediocre album. But after literally listening to this album non-stop, I can say with some certainty that this album does not suck.

In reading about the album, I also feared that Carrie and Lowell would feel like well worn territory. This seemed like Sufjan backing away from the electronic bombast and noise of Age of Adz, and going back to a more acoustic sound, with more of his precious melodies, and his quiet lilting voice. What if this was Seven Swans Pt. 2? But in listening to the album, I found that his sound has matured. It has grown. The work he did on his last album has only enhanced and strengthened the music for Carrie & Lowell. Just listen to “Should Have Known Better.” There isn’t much electronic elements, but there is enough to give greater depth and emotional resonance to the message of that song.

I also read that this album was about the complicated relationship he had with his mother and her death in 2012. I was fearful that this album would be too depressing or melancholy. And there is no getting around the fact that death and brokenness permeates this album. But I find a thread of hope and joy that flows throughout. Through words spoken in a whisper, to gentle and uplifting melodies, Sufjan recognizes that one can find beauty through life’s ugliest moments. It’s funny because sometimes, our life gains greater resonance when we are faced with our own mortality. The sweet moments of our life are that much sweeter when we are confronted with the reality of fear, death, and rejection. With the death of his mother so near, it is obvious that Sufjan understands this truth, but what is so special about Carrie & Lowell is that the listener willingly participates in Sufjan’s journey of grief and acceptance.