The title of this post is a tad dramatic, and bold considering we aren’t even halfway through 2015, but if you’re still able to get tickets to a nearby performance I would recommend doing so immediately. Before I actually go into the new album and concert, I feel I need to give some background on my 8 year love affair with Sufjan Stevens’ music.
When I was about 17 I was introduced to Stevens by a friend whose music taste I highly regard, so I Googled him mercilessly and downloaded the most popular albums at the time: ‘Michigan’, ‘Illinois’, and ‘Seven Swans’. To this day, ‘Chicago’ and ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ are on my iTunes ‘Top 25 Most Played’ playlist, with a little over 300 listens per song, obviously excluding the times I’ve listened to them on Spotify, Youtube, and Pandora. I’ve spent 5+ full days of my life just listening to those two songs. Needless to say I was smitten. Early on, I talked to anyone who would listen about Stevens’ 50 states project, I was so struck by his ambition and his passion. Though he didn’t get past Illinois and Michigan, these two albums are phenomenal, and the idea behind this project is reflective of Stevens’ immense capacity to make music. And who knows, maybe he’ll pick up where he left off someday. I’ve also always loved that Stevens’ is a multi-instrumental artist, who writes his own lyrics, as well as much of the actual music, which can range from folk to electronic. I could identify with the erratic behavior of his music, the glorious trumpeting highs, and the haunted whispering lows, as they mirror my own experience of the human condition.
When I first started listening to Stevens, I was at that special stage in adolescence when you start to realize the world is much, much bigger than you and the microcosm called high school. This revelation is both a blessing and a curse. My senseless teenage angst, further fueled by scene culture and post-hardcore music, finally started to give way to existential sadness – and there was Sufjan, right on time. He has always struck me as an artist at odds with himself, torn between his religion, his upbringing, and his art. Though my struggle between who I had been and who I was going to be as high school came to an end now seems comparatively trivial, the feelings translated.Then college happened and I seemed to forget about my soul-searching, and cared mostly about napping and dancing to ‘Just Dance’ at sweaty dorm parties.
Fast forward to 4 years later during my semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. I’m sure everyone thinks this, but I honestly had the coolest group of friends in my program. We were a small and tight-knit group, with an unlikely blend of backgrounds, styles, passions, and personalities. You know how when you make a new friend and you want to share everything you love with them so they can love it too? That’s basically what the first months were like. We shared stories, Youtube videos, articles, books, and of course music. In between Kanye West, Beirut, Bon Iver and Chromeo, was good ol’ Sufjan. But the albums my friend gave me included ‘A Sun Came!’, ‘Joy! Songs for Christmas’, and ‘All Delighted People’. I didn’t even make the connection until I got to ‘All Delighted People’ because the latter felt so different from the Sufjan I knew. ‘A Sun Came!’ was one of his earliest albums when he was still experimenting with sound and it feels very different from ‘Illinois’ and ‘Michigan’. Though he continued to experiment ten years later in ‘All Delighted People’, the album was still marked by dramatic orchestral choirs and trumpets with soft vocals. He diverged even further from his traditional style with ‘The Age of Adz’, defined by heavy bass and vocals with an electronic influence unseen in earlier albums. Moral of the story, it reignited my love and I spent most days walking around Santiago listening exclusively to Stevens. Sometimes still when I listen to ‘Djohariah’ or ‘Arnika’ I feel like I’m back there; at another crossroads in my life (the tail end of college) trying to decide who I would be.
Though I sincerely loathe calling myself a sensitive person in a public space, that’s what I am through and through. This trait breeds mindless suffering, caused mostly by myself (as is the case with a lot of suffering in the first world). Where I’m going with this is that us sensitive, and occasionally senseless sufferers, are drawn to artists like Sufjan Stevens because they’ve managed to create something from the seemingly purposeless nothing, beauty from the downright ugly. That’s exactly what his latest album ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is. It’s an elegant portrayal of reconciling loss through art and narrative. Pitchfork’s review describes the first listen best, “it feels like you’re hearing him for the first time again, and in his most intimate form. This record is a return to the sparse folk of Seven Swans, but with a decade’s worth of honing and exploration packed into it. It already feels like his most classic and pure effort.” Since the album came out in late March, I’ve listened to it on repeat for a least a few hours a day. Aside from the album being aurally beautiful, the lyrics are what really get me (as they always do). I’m unable to pick a favorite, but one song really has me hooked is ‘Forth of July’, which is directly about his estranged mother’s death. The song seems to mimic a dialogue between Sufjan and his mother, cooing: “And I’m sorry I Ieft, but it was for the best/ Though it never felt right / My little Versailles”. During the concert he seemed to sing this song the quietest of all, almost as if he were singing it to himself. If you want more background on the motivation behind this particular album I would recommend checking out Pitchfork’s incredibly candid interview with Stevens about the album, True Myth: A Conversation with Sufjan Stevens.
Regardless of knowing the back story or not, I think why the album is striking so many chords (pun intended) and getting so much hype is because loss is universal. We all experience different kinds of loss across our lives, the loss of life, relationships, careers, ways of living and being – but experience many of the same emotions regardless of the kind of loss. Stevens has a gift for finding the words some of us can’t, or don’t want to, say. Now briefly onto the show itself.
I don’t think anything I write would do justice to the experience of seeing Sufjan Stevens performing this album live, but I’ll try to give a taste. The concert was at the historic Chicago Theater right in downtown Chicago. This was my first time there and it’s the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been in. It was built in 1921 in French Baroque Style and apparently served as the prototype for all lavish American theaters of the time. I more or less felt like Belle from Beauty and the Beast stepping into the ballroom for the first time (though I held off on doing a twirl). Somehow we had third row seats, so we could see Sufjan’s very attractive face very well. For the first 20 minutes of the show I don’t think I moved or breathed because I was so engrossed in the music, while also trying to remember as many details as possible. Behind the band were 7 elongated hexagon-shaped screens that played scratchy home movies as Stevens’ began with ‘Death With Dignity’. The songs that followed were equally as heavy, ‘Should Have Known Better’, ‘Eugene’, ‘The Only Thing’, ‘Drawn to the Blood’ and ‘No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross’. Honestly, I was holding back tears through most of the concert, and I’m not one who is easily “moved”. The flow and whole production of the concert so expertly followed the stages of grief that you felt as if you were traveling through the stages with Stevens, as if they were some tangible place.
My favorite part was probably when Stevens finally broke the mood by speaking directly to the audience after going through this whole set. He shared his thoughts with us on ‘Bring It On Again’, the flop of a sequel to the widely popular ‘Bring It On’. A seemingly light topic for the very serious subject matter of his music. Stevens talked about how in ‘Bring It On Again’ a group of girls create a cheerleading squad made up of misfits, who then become cheerleaders for nontraditional activities like chess club and gymnastics. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but essentially that he thought it wasn’t fair, after being cheered on by people most of your life (think: kindergarten teachers, doting parents, encouraging professors), that you don’t have that when you get out into the ‘real world’. I think maybe he was getting at that we need to be our own cheerleaders… or something. Regardless, it was funny, charming, and shifted the mindset for the rest of the performance. After a standing ovation, the band came out for a few more songs, ending of course with the beloved ‘Chicago’. This experience was one of the single greatest in my life. If you can’t make a performance, at least go check out the album, you won’t regret it. Fan girl signing off.
Arty the Alien