Three nights of heartache, loss and joy with Sufjan Stevens in Melbourne
Super-fan DANIEL PAPROTH spent three nights with Sufjan Stevens in Melbourne celebrating and paying tribute to one of 2015’s best records, Carrie & Lowell.
“This is another song about death… am I a masochist?” Sufjan Stevens wonders aloud on the second night of a three-night stand in Melbourne. I chuckle because I’m wondering the same thing about myself. How else would you describe someone who eschews their weekend for three consecutive Sufjan Stevens shows?
I fell hard and fast for the sometimes indie-folk, sometimes scattered electro wizard from Detroit around this time last year. His seventh studio album, Carrie & Lowell, was soon to be released and having liked the first two singles from it, I decided to check out his other work for context. What followed was a head-first spiral into addiction and in the space of a year I’ve gone from not knowing how to pronounce his first name to spending an entire weekend sitting goggle-eyed in front of him.
The Carrie & Lowell tour began in Philadelphia in April last year and in May I flew to Sydney to see him at the Opera House with a friend, as part of Vivid Live. It was a stunning show, and a good precursor to his run of shows at Hamer Hall. Though it doesn’t have the Sydney harbour as a backdrop, inside, Hamer Hall is arguably better, and thoroughly fitting for a Sufjan Stevens show – wide and expansive, with candle-like lights hanging from the ceiling, a perfect venue for a big show that trades in intense emotion and intimacy.
The tone was set very well by Sydney-via-Papua New Guinea singer Ngaiire. She has fared far better than many of her Australian Idol season two alumni, and confidently holds the attention of a disparate crowd before the main act. In particular her closing number, a new song called ‘I Can’t Hear God Anymore’, makes the heart swell and one hopes she is destined for bigger and greater things in the near future.
Half an hour later the house lights go down and are replaced by a line of low, deep red spotlights. Even from the third row one can only just make out the band, standing staunchly in their positions as Michigan instrumental ‘Redford (for Yia-Yia & Pappou)’ starts up. Its solemn piano and haunting background vocals, along with a stream of glowing red lights, is a powerful statement of intent – there is no break for applause as Sufjan makes his way from the piano to centre stage, picking up a guitar and leading gently into Carrie & Lowell’s opening number, ‘Death With Dignity’.
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The main act of the show stretches about an hour and a half, and includes all but one song from Carrie & Lowell. Sufjan is no stranger to thematic shows – his 2011 tour, in support of the brilliant Age of Adz was focused almost entirely on that record – and if you were coming to this show hoping to hear joyous versions of Illinoise tracks up front, you were in for a long night.
If you were coming to this show hoping to hear joyous versions of Illinoise tracks up front, you were in for a long night
Luckily, Carrie & Lowell is an amazing record that translates extremely well in the live arena. It is effectively a 44-minute musical document about the life and death of his mother, Carrie, who passed in away in 2012. Across its 11 tracks, Sufjan eviscerates his mother and himself. Carrie suffered from depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse and abandoned Sufjan and his siblings before he turned five. Her death sent him into a “self-destructive” spiral of alcohol and drug abuse but writing the album finally helped him come to terms with her death.
It is dark subject matter, and on the whole sounds like a record that is perhaps best left as just that – a record. One can only imagine how difficult it would be to sing ‘Fourth of July’, ostensibly a conversation between himself and his mother, or ‘The Only Thing’ or ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, both songs that reveal the dark depths to which Sufjan plunged in the aftermath.
And yet, the main set is one of the most cohesive, mesmerising, utterly captivating performances I have ever seen. For a solid hour Sufjan basically relives a very dark period, with only very occasional moments of clarity and hope, like his brother having a daughter in ‘Should Have Known Better’ – “the beauty that she brings, illumination”. But before too long he is swallowed again by his “black shroud” and on each track the music, lights and staging reflect this – many songs end in a wash of harrowing guitar, drums, keys and synths, the lights slowly fading to black and punctuated by brief bursts of applause and cheering.
After a hugely impressive run of songs from Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan shows off his range with an utterly spellbinding performance of ‘Vesuvius’, the beating heart from Age of Adz. The screens behind – nine inconsistently-shaped panels, light up with an animated, computerised volcano that slowly reaches eruption as the band forms a monstrous wall of sound on stage.
Each of the three nights it is slightly different, with the second night perhaps being the best – the band reaches a truly thunderous crescendo before Sufjan signs off with flute and the line “why does it have to be so hard”. He plays around with the setlist a little each night – on night one we’re treated to a performance of ‘Stone’, from his previous band Marzuki, on night two the stately, menacing ‘The Owl and the Tanager’ and the chaotic ‘I Want to Be Well’.
‘Futile Devices’, the haunting opening song from Age of Adz, leads into the most mindblowing part of the show – ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’. The closing song on Carrie & Lowell, it finds Sufjan pleading his mother to “raise your right hand / tell me you want me in your life…” The song itself is stunning, but it is the 10+ minute outro that the song takes on that makes it a truly transportative live experience.
For a few minutes all that can be seen are white lights reflecting off disco balls as the band explore ambient sounds on stage, but then the balls begin to spin and all bets are off. James McAlister and Sufjan very nearly destroy a drum kit each night as the song comes to a roaring conclusion. It is a captivating sight – all band members obscured by blinding, maniacally flashing, rotating lights, with Dawn Landes’ wailing giving the song an extra-terrestrial touch. Words really can’t do it justice, but let’s just say that it’s not just Pink Floyd or The Flaming Lips who can do extensive freak-out jams that threaten to bring down the very walls holding them in.
It’s not until the encore that we see the real Sufjan, all self-deprecating, goofy and, well, happy
Finally, the band comes to a halt, and walk smiling, sweaty to the front of the stage to a standing ovation. It is obviously a cathartic moment for Sufjan, who has not spoken a word to this point – indeed it’s not until the encore that we see the real Sufjan, all self-deprecating, goofy and, well, happy.
For the encore Sufjan leads the band in an acoustic encore, performing crowd-pleasing songs from his past like ‘To Be Alone With You’, ‘The Dress Looks Nice on You’, ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr’. It is in stark contrast to the first part of the show – the impressive staging is not used, the five band members instead standing at the precipice of the stage with a myriad of acoustic instruments. He stops several songs like ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ and ‘Romulus’ because he’s forgotten the lyrics, then restarts them with a laugh and gentle encouragement from Dawn.
All these songs are inherently beautiful; moving in their simplicity, captivating in their studied, storied lyricism. But what is most striking about this acoustic encore is just how at peace Sufjan seems to be. He tells the audience how he has been writing the setlist each night to Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life, noting the irony with a wry laugh, “nearly all of my songs are about death. This is Songs in the Key of Death.”
What is most striking about this acoustic encore is just how at peace Sufjan seems to be
It is quite remarkable, watching a man with so many depressing songs bring a genuine sense of gravitas to a room that has spent the past two hours crying, but as Sufjan tells us, “this isn’t meant to be a funeral”. His mother’s death, and all the death and misery he had seen before it, he says, has led to a period of healing and allowed him to live a fuller, happier life.
Late last year, Sufjan was closing his shows, ridiculously, with a cover of Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’. He’s moved on from that now, favouring the upbeat crowd favourite ‘Chicago’, his best-known song. But as Shawn Cooke wrote for Pitchfork, ‘Hotline Bling’ was a “well-earned triumph”, a moment of celebration after a string of intensely personal songs that clearly still move Sufjan deeply.
On the final night of his Melbourne stay Sufjan takes a breath, smiles, and introduces ‘Chicago’ as a song about travel, moving forward with your life. It, too, is a well-earned triumph and ensures everyone in the building leaves with a smile on their face knowing that they, too, can overcome their darkest moments. All things go, all things go.
Melbourne setlist (26/2)
Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
Death With Dignity
Should Have Known Better
Drawn to the Blood
All of Me Wants All of You
The Only Thing
Fourth of July
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
Carrie & Lowell
Blue Bucket of Gold
For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
The Dress Looks Nice on You
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
To Be Alone With You
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
Casimir Pulaski Day
Chicago (Acoustic version)