My wife and I made the two hour drive to see Sufjan Stevens in concert at the Uptown Theater last Sunday evening. This was a concert I’ve been eagerly anticipating for over five years. His release “Illinois” was one of my favorites of the last decade. His songs are both fun and poignant and some are even worshipful. He has not been afraid to express his spirituality in his music and his release “Seven Swans” was filled with Christian imagery and allusions.
If you are familiar with his past few standard releases (“Illinois”, “Michigan”, “Seven Swans”, outtakes from Illinois: “The Avalanche” and his Christmas cd) you know his style of “orchestral folk pop.” His new release “The Age of Adz” is a complete departure from that (although not from some of his past stuff like “Enjoy Your Rabbit”). Instead of banjos and violins, it is filled with electronics. It is deeply heavy at times and reveals a man who has experienced a dark period of perhaps doubt and loss. At one point in the concert on Sunday he revealed a little bit about the departure from his recent past. He said that the art of songwriting had “betrayed” him. He had trouble composing the typical three to five minute songs that comprise standard cds. That was played out on the last song he played from “Adz”, “Impossible Soul” which checked in at 25 minutes. “Impossible Soul” is like 5 different songs strung together by a theme of two lovers evaluating their recent past and debating whether to go forward. It starts out well, bogs down to the point that it almost becomes comical. The band and the crowd had fun with it, but it went on too long for me.
In a surprise move, Stevens opened the concert with “Seven Swans”. It was much heavier than found on the cd and played live in the past. It contained the light, banjo strumming story of a family seeing apocalyptic imagery in the night sky but had forceful interludes that truly carry out a sense of foreboding and doom. It is one of his most worshipful songs for me. But his version this evening revealed that perhaps he is distancing from his overtly Christian focus of some of his music. He changed the words from “He said…” to “She said…I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord” and in the climatic crescendo he changed “He is the Lord” to “She is the Lord”. I am not saying that a Christian can’t imagine God as female, but the song for me is about the Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation, that is Jesus. It has always been worshipful for me and that little twist tweaked me a bit.
The bulk of the rest of the evening was devoted to music from “Adz”. I will admit that I was initially put off by a lot of the electronic blips, bleeps and loops on the release but I could always hear the beauty of the songs beneath the electronic layers. And that beauty came forth on the live versions of the songs. Songs like “Too Much” and “I Walked” have decent pop song foundations with depth as well. The highlight for me was title track. So powerful and awe inspiring as it accompanied by apocalyptic imagery on the screen behind them. The art was inspired by an obscure sign painter named Royal Robertson, a self proclaimed prophet (and probably a diagnosed schizophrenic). Knowing that Robertson was Stevens’ muse in this project should tell you where his mind may have been composing this project.
The eleven piece band were wonderful, with three trombone players, two drummers, bass, guitarist, piano player, two backup singers (who also performed choreographed moves behind him) and Stevens himself on various guitars and synthesizers.
He acknowledged that there were probably fans of his at the show that had no idea what was going on if they hadn’t sampled “Adz” yet and were expecting songs from “Illinois” and “Michigan” but they probably weren’t disappointed. Especially when he closed the show with three songs from “Illinois”: “Chicago” (which got a huge reaction and sing a long from the crowd); and the encore of “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, IL” (which is a song about the incarnation of Christ [to me anyway]); and the eerie “John Wayne Gacy”.
I would have probably preferred more songs from “Illinois” and “Seven Swans” but I don’t think the concert would have stayed with me like the live experience of “The Age of Adz.” I still find the songs from that evening playing in my mind. It was a powerful experience and has caused me to embrace the new work even more.