Sufjan Stevens Stuns at First of Two Austin Shows
The last time Sufjan Stevens toured behind a new (non-Christmas) album -- not quite five years ago for sixth record The Age of Adz -- he took about 10 minutes of each show to explain the album’s concept, which was based on the life and works of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell, was inspired by childhood times with and the recent death of his mother, Carrie. Yet -- though he did discuss some funny and tragic family memories during his first of two performances Tuesday at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall -- he didn’t mention her influence on the album’s creation outright.
Still, right after putting the rapt audience into a veritable trance during the elegant piano ballad “The Owl and the Tanager,” he did allude it: “Death is the great refinery, the event in which all substances are purified in fire.”
It would’ve been easy to miss that statement’s deeper meaning in the context of this show, especially because it became the lead-in to some especially comical anecdotes about childhood pyro adventures and his stepmother’s home-zoo of special-needs pets named based on the people they supposedly were in their past lives. But that line clearly carried weight: It was the first time Stevens spoke following a full-album run (save for one track) of the solemn-toned Carrie & Lowell.
While those cuts largely represent a return to his indie-folk form on their recorded versions, many of them took on new life played live: “Should Have Known Better” began with Steven’s wistfully breathy voice over familiar, calming finger-picking, but concluded with a booming MPC beat that’s barely audible on the album; minimalist piano tune “John My Beloved” likewise adopted an overpoweringly orchestral choral climax in favor of consistently subdued singing; and “Fourth of July” -- already poignant with its heavy repetition of the lyric “We’re all going to die” -- ended with a cacophony of intense beats and samples layered over Stevens’ simple piano lead which, combined with a spellbinding array of swirling lights, left the audience visibly stunned. Clearly (thankfully), he hasn’t completely abandoned the inclination to experiment with the amped-up production so predominant on The Age of Adz.
Dips into a couple of hauntingly sparse Seven Swans songs (“To Be Alone With You” and “Sister,” with an interlude of Adz whispered-acoustic stunner “Futile Devices”) preceded the remaining C & L track, “Blue Bucket of Gold.” While the other new numbers also employed a background visual element of vignette-style video screens, which shifted between displays of shifting colors and what appeared to be home video clips, this particular song’s use of those layered over the meticulously timed rotations of disco balls behind them best underscored the complex and specific thought processes that went into creating this spectral spectacle. That carefully planned light show, combined with a 5-minute tapestry of spacey sounds woven by Stevens and his versatile backup quartet, induced the engrossed audience into a meditative state -- it felt like the soundtrack to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Catharsis followed in the form of a calming four-song encore of older favorites -- “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” -- and ended with a thunderous standing ovation fit for one of contemporary music’s most prolific and gut-wrenchingly introspective songwriters.
“I used to be horrified by clapping and cheering,” Stevens interjected before the final tune. “But right now it’s the noise that means the most.”
A cryptic final statement indeed, but in the context of an album and tour that celebrates life by delving deep into death, it made for the most soul-stirring final thought.
Sufjan Stevens -- Setlist, May 12, 2015
"Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)"
"Death With Dignity"
"Should Have Known Better"
"Drawn to the Blood"
"All of Me Wants All of You"
"John My Beloved"
"The Only Thing"
"Fourth of July"
"No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"
"Carrie & Lowell"
"The Owl and the Tanager"
"In the Devil’s Territory"
"To Be Alone With You"
"Blue Bucket of Gold"
"Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois"
"The Dress Looks Nice on You"
"Casimir Pulaski Day"
"For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti"