When I was in HS band, there was a kid that could pick up any instrument and play it like an expert. This was as I struggled to pick up one with any sort of confidence through years of practice. He also happened to be good looking and smart, thus every girl desired his company. Naturally I loathed him, though more so I always admired his musical gift and obvious skill. However, like any genius type, I always knew there was something troubling him deep underneath. Sufjan Stevens is that kid, incarnate. He is an unnaturally gifted musician, composer, and word smith. He's good looking, smart, and funny to boot. However, he too carries with him some deep issues and emotional scars that quite literally force him to make his beautiful music. Today, I have come around to the fact, that I will never be able to understand music in the same way these genius-types will. Luckily for us, as long as the Sufjan Stevens' of the world decide to open their hearts, the world is a better place for it.
Last Tuesday night I made a short trip to the Long Center in Austin for Sufjan Stevens' latest foray into the live music world. His latest highly anticipated tour is coming on the heels of 2 new releases nearly polar opposites in nature, the nearly hour long EP, All Delighted People and the more standard length, though not of standard substance of LP, The Age of Adz. The former was released to the public in a days notice, nearly anonymously allowing the Internet to prove it once again is the best resource musicians have to promote their work. ADP is a release that is more or less suited to those followers that enjoy subtle song arrangements and guitar/banjo interludes and the wide-embracing orchestral highlights. The latter however shifts his approach from the song to more emphasis on sound alone, showing off more electronic highlights and bleep and bloops.
An ode to "Love, Heartache, and the Apocalypse", The Age of Adz is primary conceived by SS's sincere study of the Prophet Royal Robertson. Robertson was an outsider artist who suffered from Paranoid-Schizophrenia and focused his lifetime of works on those afore-mentioned 3 topics in particular while suffering with his own personal demons. Throughout the show Stevens used the occasion to cite at length his inspiration and even a little history about the artist. It was refreshing to hear an performer so candidly speak his mind in regards to his work and it gave the audience a deeper understanding of the work as a whole, which I'm certain was the intention. SS knows how polarizing his new material has been and wisely, as with any new work, it's easier to understand something if you know where it stems from.
Though the majority of the night was dedicated to the new material, he began the night with the beautiful 'Seven Swans' and a banjo monologue. It was a fitting opener due to the progression of sound, beginning simply and finishing with off-kilter timing and wild arrangements before spinning back into orchestral precision like clockwork. Stevens' career is heading in this direction and while the end product may sound strange and outlandish to some, it's still Sufjan regardless of the facade, once you peel back the layers.
The first glimpse we received of this new approach was the single, 'Too Much'. It was my first chance to see him in a live setting and right away I noticed something very childish in nature about his performing. He is timid and innocent, yet confident and strong in other moments. It may have been the new material still fresh on the mind, but he seems genuinely frightened to share these private thoughts in a public setting. I gained much appreciation for what he is doing at that moment because if the roles were switched, there's no way I could pull it off. Like a conversation through song, we get a view of what goes on in his head at this exact moment in time. Giving yourself to the audience like this, is a frightening moment; one that we should not take for granted.
Stevens asked the audience to adorn their "Slow Jam Pants" for 'I Walked', though during which, rarely a head was nodding in the entire crowd. It was interesting seeing the dynamic between the audience and the stage. To me, the event was a massive, public psychotherapy session and we were only there to listen, not to participate or hold judgment. Collectively, we knew right away, we were there for him. In order to help ail his wounds and placate his personal demons, he performs and we sat back to let him release. It was a wonderful moment.
After the hesitantly soothing opening track 'Futile Devices', SS delved back into a monologue on the idea behind the track 'Vesuvius'. More or less it is about the beautiful moment when one commits to nature, experiencing the full force and giving yourself to it's mercy. It was obvious, as they whirled into the crescendo, why he chose the Long Center as their stop on this tour as flames projected onto the front screen devoured the stage. The first track from the All Delighted People EP was the breathtakingly beautiful 'Owl and Tanager', which was a major highlight for me. The duo of back up singers and perfect piano composition speak in no uncertain terms that when it comes to creating complex yet simple song structures, Stevens is unparalleled. I would pay to see this song performed over and over.
As if he had to apologize, SS gave a short warning/intro to the the 25 minute psychotherapy session 'Impossible Soul'. During the freak out, he donned the Kanye garb and used auto-tune, which was certainly a different outcome, but was quite enjoyable. One thing is for certain as I watched the show, there's no doubt in my mind this will be the only chance I'll get to see this performed live and I reacted in the same way I would be seeing a rare bird in the wild. After much coaxing by the interpretive dancing back up singers, they finally got a majority of the audience up out of their seats for a moment, though most still sat mouth wide open not sure what to think.
Out of respect to the audience for "humoring" him by listening to the new material, the group played several songs from his most renowned 2005 release Illinois, including Chicago to begin, which received a massive applause. After a short break he returned with solo renditions of 'Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois' and the heart-wrenching 'Casimir Pulaski' before finishing the set with the hauntingly beautiful 'John Wayne Gacy'. Luckily this evening, it appears that the divine spirit decided to postpone the Apocalypse and gave everyone in the audience something to remember. You'll just have to ask them their personal opinion, because you're sure to get some differing viewpoints. For me, it was a beautiful concert by one of the musical geniuses of of generation and while it may prove to be self-serving in the main sense, I won't hold any of that against him. I also won't hold anything against him for being immensely more talented than I'll ever be; just jealous.
Age of Adz
Owl and Tanger
Get Real, Get Right
Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
The Dress Looks Nice On You
John Wayne Gacy