I fell hard for the music of Sufjan Stevens back in 2005,[i] when I was passing out burned CDs of Illinois to unsuspecting friends with labels featuring my grand, Sharpie-scrawled pronouncements: “the great pop composer of our generation,” or “the white hipster Stevie Wonder.” He sang in a falsetto whisper, on subjects of therapy-session emotionality, but with so much more depth and intricacy than the dime-a-dozen, college radio singer-songwriters of his era. Stevens’ compositions would explode into unexpected orchestral flourishes or ambient soundscapes, dotted with regal horns and trilling flutes – like scores for documentary films projected on my mind’s eye by his detailed and well-researched lyrics. Earlier this month, Sufjan embarked on his first full-scale tour in several years, in support of his intensely personal, solemn and brooding new album, Carrie and Lowell.[ii] His show at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY last week was a rollercoaster of childhood nostalgia, spiritual introspection, electronic light displays, and sonic experimentation.
Stevens presented an artistically planned, structured show with the songs from his new album played almost in sequence. On stage with the band was a projected light show, which alternately featured home movies from the performer’s childhood, images of the Oregon coastline, or colorful geometric patterns reminiscent of stained glass. Amidst the well-choreographed show, Sufjan’s voice sometimes cracked or went flat as he plumbed the depths of himself, opening up windows to his innermost existential pain and doubt, which the new songs thoroughly explore. Here he is doing “Should Have Known Better,” a beautiful piece about a son grieving for a mother who abandoned him:
The instrumental build in “Should Have Known Better” was a prelude of several other songs that stood out during the show. Stevens interpreted many of his new songs in the same stripped-down form they are in on the album, but left room for other tunes to grow and expand before his audience in bursts of grandiose sound, filling the large theater. The menagerie of instruments arranged onstage was predictably eclectic: five or six acoustic guitars, three keyboards, two computers, several pedal stations, wind chimes hanging from a mic stand, a piano, two electric guitars, a trombone, a pedal steel, amongst other stuff. Sufjan is known for playing most of the instruments on separate tracks and mixing them together on his records, but on this tour he has enlisted a five-person band which includes lead guitarist Casey Foubert and folk singer Dawn Landes singing harmonies and playing multiple instruments. One such crescendo was the outro of “Fourth of July” — see the band performing the song a few days before in Hartford, CT.
Maybe trying to soften the impact of an hour-long set of songs about death, peaking with a tune that has him singing “we’re all gonna die” repeatedly, Sufjan brought up the lights and reflected on his experiences in a soliloquy about grieving for lost loved ones, telling the audience, “Death is a companion. The spirits of the dead rest within you.” Then Stevens added a unique song to the set which included many of the themes from Carrie and Lowell, but was left off the album. Performing solo on the piano, he sang perhaps from the perspective of his mother talking to him, with images such as meadowlarks, blood, and veils, which run throughout Carrie and Lowell. I was intrigued by the song as another key to the intricate web of symbolism Sufjan weaves on the album.
In a crowd pleasing move, the band next played several of Stevens’ most popular songs from past records, including “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” and “To Be Alone With You,” before stunning the crowd with this:
The thirteen-plus minute version of “Blue Bucket of Gold” blew my hair back and reminded me why Stevens is such a special musical artist. He is equally comfortable in the world of concise, catchy pop songs and the realm of large-scale, experimental compositions. With spotlights spinning through the audience, he and his band launched into an improvised jam that was for me, the best thing about the concert. His encore was a soothing denouement of fan favorites such as “Concerning a UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” and “Chicago.”
Opening up the night was Cold Specks, the stage name of Somali-Canadian neo-soul songstress Ladan Hussein. With a deeply resonant, soulful voice and a gentle and atmospheric backing band, Ms. Hussein brought a feel to the theater that was part smoky jazz hall and part intense emotionality. Her finale was the song “Blank Maps,” and she improvised lyrically at the end, closing her eyes, stretching out her arms and pleading, “Don’t shoot/I can’t breathe,” several times. It was a jarring testament to the collective anguish of people of African descent over the way western civilization’s long history of institutionalized violence against people of color has once again come to a head due to recent events.[iii] I am easily sold on any musical artist who will stand up and speak out on those kinds of topics; Hussein’s willingness to do so in such a raw and passionate manner impressed me a great deal. Here she is singing her song “When the City Lights Dim”:
From my point of view, this girl’s got a little Nina Simone, a little Sade, plus a little Joan Armatrading in her. Not a bad combo. You can listen to more of her music here.
[i] His music came at me in a three pronged attack one week in the late summer or early fall. I watched the heartbreaking documentary Invisible Children about the plight of Ugandan children trying to escape abduction by the armies of Joseph Kony, which featured the achingly beautiful “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” received by mail a mix from Old School Record Review’s own Matt Meade featuring the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” and heard “Chicago” being played over the loudspeaker in a Price Chopper supermarket during a midnight snack run. I went and grabbed a scrap of paper from behind an empty register and copied as many lyrics down as I could. The internet would soon confirm that all the songs were by the same guy, and I was musically infatuated.
[ii] See my wildly presumptuous and pseudo-academic review of the album next week, right here on Old School Record Review!
[iii] Signing a petition from Amnesty International or the ACLU will probably take you less time than it took to read this article. Volunteering for a program like SNUG Albany will be more time consuming, but you will get a lot more accomplished.