Sad Content

10 October 2017


On Tuesday, my sister Sarah came home in a state. Her face was all red and she had been crying. She told me that on the freeway home her radio stopped working and had started looping the first track of Carrie & Lowell, the 2015 album from Sufjan Stevens. She always has it on in her car. Literally for the last year or so, possibly even longer. I had only told her over the weekend that the album was about Stevens’ feelings of depression and loneliness that he coped with in the period following his mother’s death. Sarah had never cried to this album before but now, knowing this, she was a teary mess after hearing ‘Death With Dignity’ four times in a row, a song she has heard innumerable times since she pilfered the CD from my room.

I have also cried to this album, albeit while drunk and very tired, and I have always wondered why this was the case. It is a very conspicuously emotional album, being the product of Stevens’ mourning and bereavement that followed the death of his mother, the titular Carrie, and it touches on the topics of faith and spirituality, recurring themes in his work.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever been one for crying. I remember distinctly coming out of a screening of Marley and Me (2008), surrounded by the three other members of the Day family – all sobbing wrecks – and just not really feeling that sad about the whole thing. A few years later we went to see Les Miserables (2012) together and in the same carpark I once again stood, not unphased, but also not moved to the fits of sobs that the others were experiencing.

Looking back on this, I can’t say I was an emotionless robot, despite what my sister claimed post-Marley & Me. I still understood that the films were sad. I felt pretty down when Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson buried Marley in their garden but I just wasn’t all that moved by it. Even my dad, who like many fathers is not usually one to cry, shed a decent amount of tears on both occasions.

So I wonder, am I missing out on something by reacting to sad content in the way I do? People often seem to cite the emotional impact that a piece has as a way to attest to its brilliance and while it is only one barometer of greatness, am I missing out on it?

Multiple studies have been conducted into this topic. In 1994, Minet De Wied, Dolf Zillmann and Virginia Ordman, researchers at the University of Alabama, discovered that people experiencing more empathic distress during a film also enjoyed the film more than ‘low empathisers’ did.

So am I a ‘low empathiser’? Was my sister right in labelling me an emotionless robot all those years ago? They go on to suggest that tragedy may inspire a more complex response beyond just sadness, including positive emotions, evoking ideas of friendship, love and human perseverance. Additionally, a 2011 study by Tuomos Eerola and Jonna Vuoskoski, researchers at Durham and Oxford University respectively, found that how ‘beautiful’ someone judged a piece of music to be, strongly correlated with how sad they found it and not how happy they thought the music was. So while I was coming to terms with the possibility that I was missing out on great depth and aesthetic appeal in failing to empathise with ‘sad content’, I wondered what was different about Carrie & Lowell.

In a 2015 interview with Zan Rowe on Double J, Stevens discussed the emotional weight of the album. The songs on the album are obviously emotionally crushing and throughout the 11 tracks on the record, Stevens can be heard grasping at the threads of his tumultuous emotions. In the two years following his mother’s death he struggled, trying to decipher a relationship that ultimately didn’t exist. In ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ he asks “why don’t you love me?” of a mother that abandoned him and his brother when he was one year-old and had struggled with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse throughout her whole life – torturing himself for an answer that he simply cannot get.

Furthermore, in an interview with Pitchfork in the same year, Stevens explained that in the years following his mother’s death, he endured periods of “rigorous, emotionless work” followed by times in which he experienced emotional paralysis and “cosmic anguish”. Through the almost documentarian nature of the album, we see Stevens wading through the murky depths of his own regret over his maternal relationship and the guilt that stems from this. We also see a real lack of closure that was left by his mother’s passing. In his Double J interview. Stevens raised the “severe … shitty and mundane” nature of his mother’s death, from stomach cancer, as a sticking point in his grieving. Noting the distinct lack of “poetic significance” in her painful end as a real source of discord within himself.

While I can’t say that I have lived through the experience that Stevens recounts in this record, I can say that it has messed me up before and I’m sure it will again. While Stevens stated that the process of writing and recording Carrie & Lowell felt “masochistic” and “really false”, he has found performing and touring the record to provide a “sense of catharsis”. In this, I think, lies why Sufjan Stevens makes me cry. In the raw emotion and vulnerability of his creation arises a shared experience, one in which I felt able to participate and emotionally engage with. I could grapple with the nuances and heartbreaking realities of a deeply dysfunctional relationship between a mother and son.

Ultimately, despite my fixation on the crushing sadness of Carrie & Lowell, and despite this album discussing Stevens’ own thoughts of suicide, his struggles with mental health and the destructive wake left by the death of his mother, the album does allow glimpses into the happier and more hopeful elements of Stevens’ fragmented childhood and his present life.

In short, I don’t believe that it’s an album of pure gloom and despair. Notes of optimism push through on this record. Stevens’ vocals on ‘Should Have Known Better’ as he sings about his newly born niece echo an acute shift in his own mindset. Towards the end, the song modulates from a minor to a major key, introducing a soft, almost bouncy electric piano. Stevens’ struggles are given almost a resolution in this shift in tone and content, out of a song lamenting his grieving.

It must also be noted that this is not a prescription of Carrie & Lowell to anyone who needs a good sob. For people to emotionally engage with a piece, they need to find something to grasp that they can relate to or, at the very least, emphasise with. I didn’t feel sad in Marley & Me or countless other classic sad movies because I viewed them with an indifference that arose from the disconnect I experienced. My sister hadn’t cried to Carrie & Lowell for the last year because she too was consuming the album without the knowledge and context that discerns it from any other guitar filled, soft folk album.

One response to “Sad Content”

  1. Virginia Ordman says:

    Wow, people are still reading our research! If you’re looking for a good cry, check out the film “Brian’s Song,” which made even a few stoic males in my Ph.D. Research tear up. (Whether crying can serve to reduce feelings of anger was the focus of that study.) Facial expressions (of sadness, anger, etc.) across cultures is another fascinating area. :)

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