Sufjan Stevens as an artist always seemed to me as something of a recluse when it comes to his public life and persona. Never one to shy away from a large project, (a 5-disc Christmas album for example), Sufjan Stevens has allowed his musical work to speak more for himself than any publicity in recent times. That is until his latest masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, a brief, bleak, yet spiritual album dedicated to his late mother was released earlier this year. Until the album dropped, Sufjan Stevens was rare to tour anything outside of his Christmas material, and his last full-length concept album (The Age of Adz) was almost completely inaccessible to his biggest long-time fans of his folk material with it’s sharp turn into experimental electronic work. So when Mr. Stevens came out with Carrie & Lowell it was swept with almost universal critical praise and instantly made me swoon for the nostalgic Sufjan I first started listening to when I first heard Illinoise at the age of 14. It also filled me with joy at the opportunity to finally see this artist in concert in Milwaukee, but there was something surreal about the feeling. I had no idea what I was truly in for, even hearing bits of leaked information about the instrumental setup to his tour. How could such an intimate artist move an audience of over 2,000 people?
Well, in short, Sufjan Stevens blew away even my highest expectations. Sufjan Stevens played with a large group of instrumentalists and a female backup singer, moving from the acoustic guitar, to the banjo and piano himself. He was accompanied on the horns, strings and keys by a full band that filled each song beautifully. The show covered the entire album Carrie & Lowell amid some of his more classic pieces. With Sufjan’s songs seeming so simplistically minimal on his latest album, it was almost magical to see how the additional instrumentation of the live show only broadened the tracks in person. Sufjan kept his vocals as intimate as they come off on the album and yet the composition still carried throughout the entire show perfectly.
Visually, the concert used the stage just as brilliantly. It was designed with nine pillars used for visual projection behind the band. These pillars (seemingly religious in connotation) opened with family videos of Sufjan Stevens as a child, his family and parents. This upheld the intimate nature of the album but peeled back a visual layer to let the audience in even deeper. It was truly an emotional experience. As the songs went on the visuals changed from archival footage, to landscapes and even just simply colors complementary of one another.
I went with two close friends but because of buying our reserved seating tickets at different times, each of us sat alone. I was truly experiencing the show personally, only able to gauge the reactions of strangers I sat with until it was complete. But there are few times I could have felt so connected to an audience during a show as with this concert. It took two songs of the kind of pin-drop silence you rarely experience for the audience to even muster the will to applaud. When they finally did you could feel the wonderful hesitation in breaking the silence with applause; the audience seemed completely in respect of the artist and the performance. After the completion of almost the entirety of Carrie & Lowell, there was a bit of awkward audience interaction as Sufjan Stevens made one of his only speeches post song. He went into a bit of what he referred to as a “thesis” about death, one that he’d been working on his whole life since witnessing the open casket funeral of a family member at the age of seven. He talked of his few of death as maternal, and went into how it changed over his years growing into adulthood. It was a fascinating subject to hear Sufjan open up about in a non-musical way, but it wasn’t entirely one that settled with the audience who were split between respective silence and vocalized excitement for more music.
While the show was a mostly perfect experience for me, there was another moment of discomfort that came at the conclusion of his set prior to encore. He was wrapping up the final track of Carrie and Lowell, “Blue Bucket of Gold” with a very experimental, very strobe-heavy descent into visual and audio distortion. This conclusion was one of the loudest moments of the show, filling the room with sound and using the pillars of color as almost seizure-inducing flashing lights of white. This sequence almost felt like the journey of space and time in the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but unfortunately it wasn’t entirely successful in its effect, at least for me. The sequence felt like it stretched for 10 minutes, and I literally had to hug myself to shake the dizziness I felt during it.
Luckily that sequence did not end the show, and Sufjan returned with some crowd favorites including “The Dress Looks Nice on You”, (arguably the best performance of the show) and his most popular track “Chicago” which was met with a standing ovation. Throughout the entirety of his concert Sufjan Stevens seemed completely in control of every aspect of the sound and visuals used for his performance. As I described it to friends after the experience: It felt more like performance art than a concert. If this tour is dedicated to his mother and family as much as the album feels, with as raw and emotionally honest a portrayal of grief as I’ve ever felt from a show, it truly hits the mark. As the audience flowed out of the theater I overheard one young girl say “I hope I wasn’t the only one crying throughout that concert.”
I’m positive she wasn’t alone on that sentiment.