This Sufjan Stevens article was written by Bethany Roberts, a GIGsoup contributor
The house lights dim and the chattering audience takes a collective, tangible intake of excited breath, releasing into whoops and calls but quickly hushed again as the stage is lit with an amber haze. Shadowy figures appear onstage and move quickly towards instruments visible between hanging wreaths of smoke, and the sweetly plaintive chord sequence of ‘Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)’ rings out from the upright piano at the side of the stage. From the shadows, suspended chords of wordless voices swell and melt around the anchor of the piano, and as the wash of sound continues to vibrate behind him, Stevens emerges from behind the piano, taking his position centre stage. He is handed a guitar, and begins to pluck the beautifully wistful ‘Death with Dignity’, from new album Carrie & Lowell, released in March this year and received with praise across the board. A vulnerable, almost painfully honest album, it showcases Stevens’ gift for pathos and poetry as he responds to his mother’s death in 2012, and with a powerful return to his folk roots, sings of his memories of her and the relationship she had with his stepfather, who helped raise him.
As he sings ‘Death with Dignity’, skilfully spliced home videos of dark-eyed children roll above and behind his band, between the projected pillars of church window’s silhouette. His four-piece band behind him gently enter the texture, supporting but not imposing, and we are treated once again to their well-matched and understated vocal harmony. As he plays more tunes from C&L, it is clear that the album’s whimsical, wistful recordings – as charming as they are – contain a deep reservoir of potential emotive power that the band can explore live; the audience are spellbound as ‘Should Have Known Better’, and other songs from the album, are stretched into enormous, expansive cinematic landscapes. Its a true audiovisual treat, as the projected footage of waves breaking in a cove continues hypnotically overhead. A particular highlight is ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, whose sad and simple structure contains the most gorgeously infuriating earworm in the form of a lingering, unresolved ascending scale in the chorus, repeated again and again. The band all put down their instruments and Stevens, alone in the centre, begins the intricate opening to ‘Eugene’, his voice cracking slightly on a couple of the high notes in this intensely personal, nostalgic song.
The modal harmony and somehow mythical quality comprising his curious compositional identity keeps his songs free from sentimentality. Many of his songs contain similar harmonic and melodic components, but it doesn’t matter; each song pulls the audience further into his captivating musical stories as the layers in the music grow and fade. Each musician in his band (save the drummer) play at least four instruments during the set, continually adding and subtracting piano, guitar, synth, percussion, more guitars, trombone and of course, their haunting vocals that wrap around Stevens and bolster him. This endless instrumental variation drives the set onwards, the sonic palette constantly evolving, pushing its own boundaries as the sound ebbs and flows. We are caught up in the vortex of the band’s mesmerising interplay in ‘Fourth of July’, a dark and self-conscious C&L anthem, and a storm builds under Stevens’ melancholy words, somehow reminiscent of Elliott Smith. Thunder breaks, and we are pinned to the back of our seats, silent not from indifference but in some form of reverence. (I spoke to a friend a couple of days later, who saw his End of the Road festival set earlier in the weekend. She described the odd feeling of collective euphoria as the crowd sang ‘we’re all gonna die’ along with the band, highlighting the inexplicable silencing effect that an auditorium’s roof and folding seats can have on a crowd’s reaction.)
The texture cools down again during C&L’s ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ and the equally lovely album title track, before Stevens and bandmate Dawn Landes share a vocal duet so exquisitely delicate in ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ that I almost don’t want to breathe while they sing for fear of blowing them away. Another gear shift, and the band are back at full capacity with ‘Vesuvius’, an explosive, electronic number from 2011’s The Age of Adz, before we are treated to yet more wonder from C&L as they launch into ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’. A looping phrase near the end is passed between the musicians and gradually manipulated into a chaotic haze of ribcage-rattling bass and relentless distortion. They stand, leave the stage and the audience instantaneously breaks into a standing ovation which seems to last a tantalising ten minutes – surely they’ll return? – until Stevens comes back onstage and finally greets his audience. He’s witty, a little awkward and somehow, by not speaking to us for most of the two-hour set, this feels like a gracious and humble concession. Not many artists could pull off his level of enigma and aloofness, but this is why he, and nobody else, is Sufjan Stevens. They indulge us in six (six!) more songs, including the bewitching ‘To Be Alone With You’, and finish with the magnificent ‘Chicago’, which will never ever get old or stale because its one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. It is wonderful, and as we leave Colston Hall I find myself grinning, and humming that strange little earworm again, grateful to have finally seen this exceptional musician and his truly outstanding band.