I'll be the judge of that.

Sufjan Stevens and the Spectacular Sadness of Carrie and Lowell

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Arriving at the Sufjan Stevens show last Friday, two questions weighed on my mind. The first was a practical matter: how drunk was my Google Maps, because at the destination it gave me for Kings Theatre, instead of the grand, newly-refurbished concert hall, I found myself looking at a nondescript door between a nail salon and a wig factory. This didn’t seem right.

I sorted out the navigational issues, and twelve blocks south in the real Kings Theatre lobby I returned to the more pressing question: exactly where would this evening fall, on a scale from one to “utter emotional devastation”?

Sufjan is touring his new album Carrie and Lowell, one that I’ve been repeating often this spring. It’s beautiful, restrained and delicate, with memorable and haunting melodies. But it’s also profoundly sad – Sufjan’s mother (Carrie), bipolar and schizophrenic, struggled with substance abuse and at times abandoned her children, and the album is a candid portrait of the sorrow, heartache, and loss he remembers and still carries with him as a result. Thus, I was bracing for an intensely emotional show.

The last time I saw Sufjan perform sticks out as one of the most thrilling concert experiences in my memory. This was around the time of his album The Age of Adz – an expansive, unsettled electro-pop record – and he put on a show to match the maximalist quality of those songs. The show was Baz Luhrmann-esque, stuffed with balloons and smoke and neon, costumes made of glow-in-the-dark tape and blinking lights, and Sufjan wearing an enormous pair of white feathered wings. It was July and I was with a best friend, and it was pouring rain the entire time, adding to the ridiculousness of the whole event. We stood in the rain, in the dark, belting out “All Things Go!” along with the neon spectacle before us, and I left feeling like something insane but incredible had just happened.

kings theatre

As great as that was, the zany production could not be in greater contrast with the solemnity of Carrie and Lowell, and as the Kings Theatre show approached I was becoming increasingly curious about how these new songs would fit in with that previous vibe.

Ultimately, Sufjan shrewdly chose not to marry the new and old material, dropping most of the theatrics and playing the entirety of Carrie and Lowell with a performance that reflected the haunting, spare atmosphere of the songs. This proved incredibly effective, heightening both their subdued melodic beauty and the visceral pain so plainly detailed in the words. He near-whispered the line “what’s the point in singing songs/if they’ll never even hear you,” casting it out into the gigantic packed theater, and I could feel everyone around me draw the same sharp breath, pierced by the overt sorrow and longing.

Though markedly more restrained than the Age of Adz excess, the stage effects accompanying the Carrie and Lowell songs served well to amplify their sensory impact. Images provoked in lyrics like “lemon yogurt/remember I pulled at your shirt/you dropped the ashtray on the floor” turn even more bittersweet as home movies from his childhood projected on a screen behind him.

The climax of the show came at the end of “Fourth of July,” as he transformed the final lyric “we’re all gonna die” – on the album sung as a brief, hushed conclusion – into a five-minute refrain, with a soaring orchestral arrangement and beams of blue spotlights shooting into the audience. “We’re all gonna die,” repeated over and over – it was an almost comically bleak moment. But it was also completely captivating, for some reason. Maybe because it was so morose, so depressing, but maybe also because it was just factually true, and we were all sitting in this weird theater together, letting it sink in. Sufjan excels as a composer and vocalist, but this moment revealed his strength as a performer – to bring this very sad and very personal collection of songs on stage with deliberate intensity, compelling the audience to go there with him.

age of adz

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, by the way – when he finally engaged with the audience he told some amusing anecdotes about living in Brooklyn, and his parents’ penchant for having their past lives read, and adopting pets, and having THEIR past lives read. Toward the second half he also played older material, including “Chicago,” which I’d forgotten how much I like to sing very loudly.  And I DID.

Both times I’ve watched Sufjan perform, he’s come across as needing to get things out. While the catharsis of The Age of Adz was explosive and exuberant, in Carrie and Lowell it’s more of a quiet rattling. Yet what was clear to me after the Kings Theatre show was that even in the obvious distinctions between the two performances, they are not disconnected from one another.  “Should I tear my eyes out now?/everything I see returns to you somehow,” he sings on Carrie and Lowell. It’s a good summation – for all of the maximalist self-reflection and modern frustration of his earlier work like “Chicago” and “The Age of Adz”, Carrie and Lowell is their point of origin.  And while much of it does lean toward “emotional devastation,” it was still rather spectacular to watch a performance of such unfiltered sadness and truth.

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