“I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it,” he says. “But the writing and recording wasn't the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time.” That he was able to make an album of such coherence and delicacy is a significant feat, given the deeply complicated relationship he had with Carrie.
Carrie and Lowell divorced in 1984, but stayed in touch through the years. When Carrie died, Stevens felt emotionally and creatively all over the map. He collaborated on a hip-hop album with Serengeti. He worked on a ballet. He was trying to distract himself, to stay busy. “I was trying to manipulate my mood. I was working the opposite of my own true interior envelope. I wasn't able to admit how deeply I was affected by her death.”
Eventually, though, he began writing songs, but had no intention of making an album dedicated to Carrie and Lowell – to the mother who left and the stepdad who stayed. In fact, after recording 30 demos, Stevens had no clue what he had. “It was a shambles. I had no objectivity.” Even after nine albums, he wasn't any better at knowing how to shape this collection into an album. “Every time I start something, I feel ignorant. It’s starting over every time.” Though he usually produces his own records, this time he turned to Thomas Bartlett, a musician-producer friend who was in a similar existential place; he had recently lost a brother to cancer.
“Thomas took all these sketches and made sense of it all. He called me out on my bullshit. He said: ‘These are your songs. This is your record.’ He was ruthless.”
The result is a tight 11-song cycle, 42 minutes that are at once brutal and beautiful, obsessed with grief and death but absolutely cathartic. For Stevens, the chaos of it all had been shaped into something with boundaries and something like clarity. “At the end I could speak for it,” he says, “for the sadness. It was dignified.”