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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Live: Sufjan Stevens' deep explorations of death

Posted by on Wed, May 13, 2015 at 1:12 PM

click to enlarge Dear in the headlights: Sufjan Stevens - PHOTO COURTESY OF ASTHMATIC KITTY RECORDS
  • Photo courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty Records
  • Dear in the headlights: Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens, Moses Sumney
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Thursday, April 7, 2015


“Can I tell you a secret?” Moses Sumney cooed near the middle of an all-too-brief opening set on Thursday night in Durham. “My wings are made of plastic.” Accompanying himself with finger-snaps and guitar strums, it was a disclosure that stood for the entire evening at the Durham Performing Arts Center, from Sumney’s quiet brilliance to Sufjan Stevens’ massive spectacle of grief: the fabrication of the magical, the construction of closeness.

Though I missed the beginning of his set, Sumney offered an enormously intriguing presence, combining the vocal splendor of Marvin Gaye and the layered complexity of the Dirty Projectors into honest, confessional songs. “I hope you guys like self-deprecating music,” he told us.

Working solo, Sumney hit his microphone to create a loop, layered on vocal glissandos reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing, and began chanting honest, broken confessions. “I don’t know if I am worth it,” he intoned in a light and airy but also full voice, backed by his own laminate chorus, building a network of self-support for pain. Sometimes he played guitar. Sometimes he just sang with his own beats or claps that evoked Steve Reich. In his final song, after singing in the style of a military cadence, Sumney stacked D’Angelo-esque scatting atop an a cappella chorus. He sunk to the ground when the beat dropped back in. It was cogent but complex music, a perfect companion to the performance that followed.

In March, Sufjan Stevens released Carrie & Lowell, an almost through-composed album of 11 wrenching songs that dealt with his mother’s death. The lingering question before Stevens’ set was how he might craft an engaging live show from material that lacked the supersonic sprawl of some of his early music. The answer was to make the new more closely resemble the old. Rather than create a single-spotlight evening, Stevens transformed the songs of Carrie & Lowell into a grand spectacle while still retaining intimacy. His tightly rehearsed five-piece band played nearly the entire album straight through, concluding the set with a drawn-out rendition of 2010's haunting “The Owl and the Tanager.”
At the start, Stevens sat alone on stage, playing a chord progression on a upright piano, before his band entered to harmonize the music. The move epitomized the evening’s constant juxtaposition of the cozy and the ostentatious. As he transitioned into the opening track of Carrie & Lowell—“Spirit of my silence, I can hear you,” he muttered, unadorned—grainy home-movie footage appeared as a backdrop, projected on hanging slivers that resembled cathedral windows. The song ended with a lengthy vocal wash, expanded from the album’s brief outro, and the windows multiplied into a triptych, a church choir welcoming us to prayer.

But it soon became clear that this was not exclusively the Christianity of Stevens' early music, but also the science-fiction mythology of Age of Adz, his 2010 apocalyptic electronica manifesto. An instrumental interlude in the song “Should Have Known Better”—on the album, a rarely quaint and sunny moment—was reconfigured to resemble a space-age organ. Atop a strange groove and accompanied by a laser-light show, Stevens half-crossed himself as he repeated the word “Illumination.”

Throughout the performance, the little postludes that appear throughout Carrie & Lowell became dense shimmers, sermons of luminous sound. Stevens would start a song alone, in a single spotlight, on piano or acoustic guitar; the band might join in during an interlude and help build from solitary pain to massive sound. Carefully staged choreography allowed for both of these states to retain emotional impact. Songs with opaque meanings on the album were often rendered explicit. The cagily disenchanted love song “All of me wants all of you” was fully reimagined as slow-jam funk, with thick backbeats and Stevens making deftly sexual use of his pelvis. “The Only Thing,” an anthem of attempted suicide, retained its sense of quiet despair, as panes showed grainy footage of the canyon that Stevens said he might “half-light, jack knife” his car into. The band entered and swelled but then seamlessly departed, leaving the song to end with just Stevens and his sorrow.

Not every transformation worked. A reverb-heavy rendition of “Fourth of July,” the low-key emotional climax of Carrie & Lowell, had too heavy a rhythmic footprint, as Stevens sang from the piano with noisy interjections from the full band. But when the entire ensemble took up reciting “We’re all gonna die,” the bleak rejoinder crescendoed from genuinely unsettling—as spotlights ricocheted across the audience, implicating us in the message—into a lurid ode to death.

Stevens' monologue—the first spoken interjection after an hour of music—humorously touched on his adolescence, his parents’ obsession with reincarnation, his family’s menagerie of adopted animals, and, of course, bereavement. Every Sunday, his family would inter recently deceased pets in an open-air funeral, leaving crows and vultures to feast on carcasses. This ritual seems echoed in the ethos of Carrie & Lowell, an open-air excising of his mother’s ghost, fans as carrion birds. Following the speech, bright and immaculate renditions of songs from earlier albums—plucked strings, plentiful banjo, no flashy lights—seemed to signal that the ritual had concluded. Then, however, the church-window panes descended, and Carrie & Lowell’s final track quietly unfurled, accompanied by footage of Stevens as a child. Electronic whirrs intruded on what was to be a light piano interlude. The window panels turned black. An outro expanded into a full-body, drums-pounding, laser-light spectacle: a luminous, seemingly unending cathedral of noise.

Three classics songs followed as encores, signaling the transition from ceremony of grief to celebration of fandom, as the audience stood and sung along to the chorus of “Chicago.” (A trumpet! Now it’s a true Sufjan show.) For this tour, Stevens has determined how to magnify the private, to transform an album that feels like a single voice whispering into your ear into a band that roars in giant venues with similar intimacy. The live show feels more overtly cumulative than the recorded album, drawing on the richly omnivorous evolution of his artistry. The new songs were treated with the sprawl of his earlier albums, and the older songs—tightly constructed within the borders of their verses—were rendered like the new.

It also represented a formidable response to over-eager critics who quickly proclaimed Carrie & Lowell to be Stevens' best work. Though beautiful, it is certainly an unambitious album in comparison to Illionoise and Adz. The ambition is instead manifested in live performance: Stevens has constructed a cohesive whole that acts as companion to Carrie & Lowell, shedding new light on familiar anguish.

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