MOJO: Sufjan Stevens, live


Loss leader

Brooklyn bard finds joyful relief in playing grief-stricken new songs to a home crowd

Kings Theatre,
Brooklyn, NY

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that this show feels like a funeral. The album that Sufjan Stevens is playing behind tonight chronicles his response to his mother’s death in 2012. Carrie & Lowell explores Stevens’ grief at losing a mother who suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism and abandoned the family when Stevens was a baby. When she remarried Lowell Brams there was a brief, relatively golden period wherein the kids visited Carrie and Lowell in Oregon for a handful of summers, before she removed herself from her kids’ lives again. So, there is grief at his mother’s death, and grief at being denied the closeness with her that he longed for.

All the same, it is striking how much tonight’s concert feels like watching someone give a eulogy. The songs on the album are hushed and economical, admitting their sorrow and struggle in utmost solitude; Carrie & Lowell is a solo listening experience. But tonight Stevens is standing on stage before thousands of people at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, a vast, ornate palace of a venue that reopened after a complete renovation this year. Most of Stevens’ vocals on the record are double-tracked, which makes his lone voice in this huge space sound exposed and vulnerable. Opening the show with the album’s spiderweb-delicate first track, Death with Dignity, Stevens looks like a little boy, even at 39. There’s a sense, as with eulogies, of the speaker trying to get it right – not really for those present, but for the loved one who’s gone.

Stevens has quite the history as a performer. Touring breakthrough album (Come on Feel the) Illinoise in 2006, he and his musicians (including Annie Clarke) dressed up as cheerleaders and formed a human pyramid onstage. In 2006 he decked out an entire orchestra in butterfly wings (Stevens wore a hawk headdress), and for 2010’s Age of Adz, he and his crew wore day-glo robot costumes. The first time this writer saw Stevens, though, was at a low key show in 2004 playing behind the quiet songs of Michigan. I’d gone to see the support act, Gravenhurst – my friend Nick Talbot. A decade later, Nick died; Carrie & Lowell became a balm of sorts. Doubtless many people tonight are exploring their own sorrow, and there is something about records like Carrie & Lowell that ask you to bring your own experience; like stained glass windows revealing their beauty only when the light passes through them.

Accordingly, the lighting onstage looks exactly like church windows, only here the panels are illuminated with old Super 8 footage of Stevens’ family; of Carrie getting married, and, at the end of the show Stevens playing on the beach as a tiny boy, loss of innocence folded into this larger contemplation of grief.

Stevens acknowledges the idea of the past as a foreign country throughout Carrie & Lowell; his attempts to re-remember are like “a dead horse”. And yet, here is this incredibly courageous attempt to reach out to the past and understand—or at least come to terms with not understanding. (Seeing Stevens singing “Carrie come home!” onstage puts one in mind of John Lennon’s devastating “Mama don’t go!”.)

Carrie & Lowell has been described as a return to folk for Stevens, based on the fact it’s quiet and there’s banjo plucking on it. But the album and particularly the show offer folk experiences on a more profound level. Folk music developed as a necessary way of processing life’s big truths, especially death, as a shared experience.

The live arrangements are spare for the most part, with occasional electronic flourishes; only in a beats-augmented version of All of Me Wants All of You does Stevens loosen up briefly, dancing like a red-blooded adult and singing about a sexual encounter, albeit a bleak one.

After playing most of the record in its entirety without a word to the audience, Stevens finally says “Thank you”, and the crowd’s response is ecstatic, relieved, even; the gig equivalent of drinking at a wake. He breaks the show’s intensity with a lengthy, goofy monologue about growing up with his dad and stepmum, which has the charm of a 1960s comic routine.

Fan favorites like To Be Alone With You and Sister follow, and Stevens finishes the set with album-closer Blue Bucket of Gold, which erupts with electronic sounds into something overwhelming and purgative; the lights go berserk with search beams and gigantic mirrorballs. Returning for an encore, Stevens dedicates For the Widows In Paradise to his stepfather Lowell, whom he says is is in the audience tonight. The pair stayed close (Brams now runs Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty record label) so it’s easy to read into the refrain, “I’d do anything for you”. He closes the show with the grandiose hit, Chicago, which feels a bit like getting a going-home present at a funeral; not really necessary, but welcome all the same.

The real gift of this concert, and of Carrie & Lowell, is in its honest admissions of how hard life can get; its articulations of the unromantic parts of despair alongside the allure of longing and the horror of finding oneself lost, and the constant movement of grief. It is something rare and extraordinary.