Sufjan Stevens Live at Massey Hall, Toronto 10/13/10
- A quick disclaimer: Before I begin with my recounting of the Sufjan Stevens concert at Massey Hall last night, I must preface it with a little background on how Stevens and his devoted fans have gotten to this point October 13, 2010–the beginning stage of his first real tour in support of his first “real album” (quotes emphasized) since 2005. Proper context is definitely needed in order to understand the importance/implications of the concert. And as you’ll read later in my review, Stevens seems to think the album and tour need to be contextualized for his audience as well.
- Very special thanks to Richard Mah, a fellow concertgoer who has kindly contributed his bird’s-eye view photos of the concert from our seats in the gallery for the purpose of this concert review.
- Also, I’ll be devoting a separate post to DM Stith’s opening set.
Sufjan Stevens is not who we thought he was. We, the general music public and followers of his artistic career, had by and large pegged him as a gentle singer-songwriter with the hushed melodic voice and penchant for writing chamber pop songs with grand orchestrations to embellish his folk-influenced tunes. He was the musician who leapt into the independent music spotlight during the middle of the last decade, captivating listeners-by with the prospect of the impossibly grand delusion of grandeur commonly known as “The 50-State Project.” His goal–to create one album for each of the 50 states in USA–was simple enough to understand, but in practice, it was surely a painstaking process.
Stevens was the songwriter who, after the release of his second “states” album, Come On and Feel the Illinoise in 2005, and the subsequent b-sides record The Avalanche, temporarily set songwriting aside to complete a symphonic song cycle/film for chamber ensemble called The BQE, which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Subsequently this same Stevens shocked his fans when he revealed on more than one occasion that The BQE project had effectively drained his desire, and perhaps ability to write songs. One notable, somewhat infamous quote from the man himself during a 2009 interview he conducted with fellow musician Shannon Stephens on the Asthmatic Kitty web site is as follows:
I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private. Having spent ten years in private (not sharing your music), can you offer some wisdom on this matter? Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?
By the time an album called Run Rabbit Run by the string quartet named Osso– a re-imagining of Stevens’s 2001 electronic song cycle/ode to the Chinese zodiac Enjoy Your Rabbit–was released in the fall of 2009 on Stevens’s own Asthmatic Kitty record label, the once-prolific musician’s future in songwriting was still in serious doubt. But Run Rabbit Run (a collaborative effort between several musicians, composers, and arrangers, commissioned and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National, and sanctioned by Stevens himself) also signaled that the Michigan native created music that aspired to be more than just a collection of catchy songs.
With the release of the nearly 60-minute “EP” All Delighted People and The Age of Adz (pronounced ODDS), his first “proper full-length album” in five years, Stevens demonstrates that he is actually a contemporary composer (of the indie-classical persuasion, if I have to put a label on it, which I don’t, but will for the sake of basic identification) of high order, who happens to use songs as his principal medium. If I recall correctly, Gustav Mahler also picked song cycles as his compositional poison (just a sidenote of interest).
There are those who have followed Stevens since the 50-States Era who seem somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps perturbed at the prospect of The Age of Adz, an electronics-laden fantasy which has been interpreted by some as a huge departure from the acoustic guitar/banjo-driven songs of much of Stevens’s earlier catalog.
I couldn’t disagree more with this opinion. When placed within the larger context of the songwriter’s entire catalog, The Age of Adz is the perfect amalgamation of Stevens’s focused yet grandiose folk-influenced songs and his quirky electronic bliss-outs. Because this is not an album review per se, I will leave it at that.
First order of business is the setlist, which was as follows:
- All Delighted People
- Too Much
- Futile Devices
- Age of Adz
- I Walked
- Now That I’m Older
- Get Real Get Right
- Enchanting Ghost
- The Owl and the Tanager
- Impossible Soul
- Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (Sufjan solo piano)
- John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Sufjan solo acoustic guitar)
*If anyone has any corrections in regards to the setlist that I may have missed, please let me know.
Stevens opened the set with “All Delighted People,” a nearly 12-minute epic that officially heralded the songwriter’s return to form when it was released this past summer. Immediately, the chills hit me. From its choral a cappella beginning to the earnest emoting of Stevens’s voice, newly imbued with yelps, cracks, and a front-and-center vulnerability (one central lyric plainly states, “I’m still afraid of letting go of choices I’ve made”), to the bombastic collision of razor-sharp strings, screeching electronic distortions, triumphal brass, and the unabashed pounding of drums–this track shows Stevens at the height of his powers, able to cultivate deeply intimate and personal moments alongside uber-epic textures that make even Stevens’s past work seem small in comparison.
The performance itself was imperfect in its delivery, but that in no way detracted from the power, humanity, and immediacy of the work. At one point, the line “I love you from the top of my heart” escaped from Stevens’s mouth with a poignant croak. Meanwhile, countless suns, planets, stars, comets and other nondescript celestial bodies bounded across the scrim via video projection behind the band.
It was clear from the start that Stevens’s focus had gone cosmic, way beyond the quaint close-ups of U.S. state locales and stories of historical interest.
Second on the set was the acoustic guitar-centered “Heirloom.” “This is to lift up your spirits after all that drama,” explained Stevens. It is here that I would like to note perhaps the one weak characteristic of the set. While Stevens, to his credit, courageously focused almost exclusively on new material, he seemed insistent on alternating the more upbeat electronic tunes or loud, grandiose numbers with the quieter songs, so that by the fourth song, “Futile Devices” the patterning of song sequences became repetitive and predictable. That being said, if that’s the only aspect of the concert to take issue with, then ultimately, there’s nothing about which to complain.
In an abrupt change of moods, the band quickly fell into the groove of “Too Much” with exuberance. Here the audience was treated to a live music video of sorts, as a rapid-fire succession of images depicting Stevens and others dancing and rocking out the hipster-chic cool factor.
Thanks to trendaway for this excellent video footage of Stevens and co. performing “Too Much.”
By the end of the song, both music and video have devolved into a kind of trance ritual that felt primal and animalistic. Stevens would later relate that “Too Much” was riding on the prospect of love–what he called “the great theme…the great migration of the human heart.”
Indeed the explanatory between-song talks Stevens had with his audience were frequent and heartfelt, all the while seeming to function as exculpatory evidence that the composer was not in the wrong for taking so long to produce new music on a new, more personal theme for himself-love.
Stevens expounded on the overall concept of The Age of Adz:
“The drama queen that I am…I’ve confused heartache with the end of the world. The apocalypse is the end of the heart. Thankfully, the heart is a very strong muscle.”
Title track “The Age of Adz” felt nothing short of prophetic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to elaborate on what I mean by that. It will have to wait for another post, in which I’ll point out the correlation of the above song and the album for which it is named to a book by Jacques Attali called Noise: The Political Economy of Music.
I will say that the song “Age of Adz” is indicative of the entire album, in that Stevens has reclaimed his familiar backing choruses and festive chamber-band instrumentation, and transported them to a more immediate, jagged and imposing musical landscape. The song is also emotionally brazen: “When I die I’ll rot/But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got…Gloria/Victoria.”
The live performance of Stevens and company, like the studio performance, is somehow both existential and cosmic, personal and intimate but also infinitely large and overwhelming. The sonic textures are filled to excess with distortion, an utter cataclysm of sounds.
“Vesuvius” started out quietly but with insistence and later builds as static keyboard riffs pierce the chorus at the song’s climax, where recorders lend a provincial yet empowering sense of the human spirit. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” the song implores.
It should be noted that both the thematic content and visual look of both the new album and the resulting tour owe much to Royal Robertson a 20th century sign painter from Louisiana whose lived a tortured life as he succumbed to his all-consuming artistic obsession with the apocalypse, time travel, and alien creatures. Stevens studied the artist and the twisted reality he made for himself, and created The Age of Adz in part as a tribute to his influence. But as Stevens told the Toronto crowd at Massey Hall, Robertson’s story is also about the potential “disease of the imagination.” He dedicated the song “Get Real Get Right” to the deceased visionary artist.
Another highlight of the night was “The Owl and the Tanager,” perhaps the most gorgeous, deeply sorrowful song in the Sufjan Stevens catalog (which is saying a lot)
Near the end of the set, Stevens led the band in 25-MINUTE “song cycle” called “Impossible Soul”. In addition to being a frontrunner for most excessive Sufjan song ever, the live rendition last night gave me the opportunity to witness something I never dreamt I would see, hear, or write about: SUFJAN STEVENS USING AUTOTUNE! (it’s also on the recording) But don’t despair–it was fun, and in the context of the song’s indulgent pop aesthetic, it was perfectly appropriate. It seems almost obligatory these days for every recording artist to do at least one song with AUTOTUNE. Hell, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver can get away with it, so can Stevens.
Before ending the evening’s set with “Chicago,” the only song representing the Illinoise album up to that point, in a heart-to-heart with the concertgoers, Stevens confessed with sincerity and humbleness, “It’s a great privilege to bring my bizarre vision of song and dance to you.”
In response to a resounding and incessant call for an encore, Stevens returned to the stage alone to perform two more favorites from his 2005 breakthrough record Illinoise. “Please forgive me as I cover my own songs,” he entreated the crowd. And the crowd readily obliged him, as he delivered a touching version of “Concerning the UFO Sighting…”
Somewhat puzzlingly, Stevens ended the night on a dark note, closing with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” an utterly macabre but startlingly beautiful song about the infamous serial killer. It surprised me that he would choose to have that song be the last thing his fans heard before they walked out into the rainy Toronto night. Perhaps, it was a reminder to both himself and his audience, that in the end, “I am really just like him/ Look underneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid.”
Ultimately, I think it was a subtle ego check, a way to put things in perspective. Illinoise and the charming acoustic albums that immediately preceded it seemed to cause an organic response among Stevens’s fans to indulge in the myth of Stevens as the consummate, epic songwriter who could do no wrong and would always continue writing, until each and every U.S. state had an album devoted in its honor. Perhaps we projected unreasonable expectations on the artist, we pegged him as a savior of sorts for indie music, the de facto leader of grandiose, no-stone-unturned pop songs that were exhaustively researched and impeccably written.
Now having rediscovered his compositional voice, Sufjan Stevens seems to be taking personal ownership of his craft, and not hiding behind gimmicky 50-state concept albums (the artist’s own opinion) or third-person accounts. No, this is Stevens, the composer of beautifully complex, meaningful songs and master of his own creative destiny.