Sufjan Stevens' latest album, Carrie & Lowell, focuses mainly on the death of his mother, Carrie. She was not a consistent figure throughout his childhood. He reflects on his parents' complicated life together, and within "Should Have Known Better," paints a picture of his early childhood memory of his mother leaving him. This song conveys the deep emotional burdens that childhood events can have on a person's life, and how important it is to see past these burdens and move forward from these events. It depicts Stevens' personal experience with both extreme depression and coming to accept his experiences and move past them. In the song, he describes the day when he was "three, maybe four" and Carrie left him "at that video store." Carrie later passed away, and since he had spent so little time with her, the vacancy he felt when she died was extremely traumatic to him.
The tone throughout this first half of the song is very hushed, expressing his vulnerable, sad, and weary state. He expertly describes his depression by repeatedly using a metaphor of a "black shroud" that a demon has cursed him with. The shroud represents his depression-- a sort of mental prison that the traumatic event has trapped him in. After his mother left him, he was enveloped in the "black shroud," henceforth, he was unable to express his pain, and his emotions were pent up inside of him. The shroud became a dictator of not only his emotions, but of his life:
The demon had a spell on me
My black shroud
The captain of my feelings
The only thing I wanna believe
The black shroud prevents him from being able to move on.
One line that highlights his depressed state is "frightened by my feelings, I only wanna be a relief." Oddly, he isn't asking for relief here. He wants to be the relief for others. This somewhat contradictory line implies that he currently is not a source of relief to those around him. A common feeling of depressed individuals is that they are a burden to their loved ones. Here, Stevens embodies this feeling, expressing his desire to be a relief to his loved ones-- further reason to keep his emotions to himself.
About halfway through the song, however, there is a change in the tone; it shifts from sad to hopeful. He reflects that he "should have known better" than to let the darkness of his emotions take over his entire life:
I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel...
Here, Stevens emphasizes how detrimental it was to hold in his emotions, and how there is no use in lingering on past memories-- one needs to "concentrate on seeing" small bits of happiness instead. He then describes how even some peace and happiness can come from traumatic events. For Stevens, he finds this sense of peace in his brother's newborn daughter, in which he sees his mothers features.
By using a metaphor, contradictory language, and a change in tone, Stevens is able to express both the complicated feeling of his depression, and his journey to acceptance.