Okay, so it took Sufjan Stevens five years to do anything new. He had a few things on his plate.
A couple months back, there was nary a murmur of anything new coming from his camp. Then, he announced a tour. Then, released a free EP, All Delighted People, which was an hour long. And then announced a brand new album, The Age Of Adz, also over an hour. This came as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the indie world, especially after the disquieting quotes, in which Stevens essentially said, “I don’t even know what making music is to me anymore.” But, being that he is a champion songwriter, has yet to write a song that could ever be considered a dud, and wrote “Casimir Pulaski Day,” I was more than willing to spend the borderline-mugging price of $80 for tickets for my wife and I to see him at Portland’s wonderful Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I’ll keep my feelings on the venue short: never have I been able to hear every single word sung so clearly, even amid the squall of 11 other people playing with him. Any doubts on the worth of the ticket price vanished quick as a flash.
If five years of expectations got to Sufjan, he wasn’t showing it tonight. He was clearly in top form: extravagant, talkative, jovial, and dressed mostly like a clown. As introverted as he comes across in interviews and in the press, he was the opposite during the performance, from talking about the subject matter of the new album (“Now here’s a song that’s not about outer space or nuclear winds or any of those things… this is a song about volcanoes…” before launching into “Vesuvius”), or the schizophrenic sprawl of his 25-minute album closer, “Impossible Soul” (“This is it, folks: this is the miniseries!”), or even Royal Robertson, the artist who inspired a great deal of The Age Of Adz (“Years later, Royal’s wife realized that all of his visions, his paranoia, his obsession with the cult… were actually because he was crazy!”). When “Impossible Soul” was played, Sufjan reinvented the long-song wheel and demonstrated that, the only way to keep people awake during a 25-minute song… is, of course, turn it into a freaky dance party, mixing auto-tuning, skeleton costumes, and a giant diamond that descended from the rafters. It’s no wonder the guy takes so long to put out records: he’s too busy pouring his creativity into keeping people entertained. It’s not a bad thing.
As far as the setlist goes, he even addressed this part: “I know that a lot of people probably bought the tickets before they knew that I would have two albums of material to play, and thank you for your patience.” Those who came to hear a greatest hits show were likely disappointed: only three songs made the cut, pre All Delighted People. “Chicago,” which people rightfully lost their minds for, and “Concerning the UFO Sightings” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” as the encores. If people were losing their interest by the time the pianos on “Chicago” came in, their doubts disappeared once it roared into life. The energy of the entire room shifted to the strictest joy, and every single voice in the room brought new life to the chorus, a song that, even in five years, has never lost its magic.
Sufjan Stevens is a showman. How he learned to make an orchestral band work so flawlessly is beyond me, but even live, none of the songs lose an ounce of their beautiful sheen, and every person playing, from the twin drummers to the back-up singers/dancers, fall into place so amazingly, it’s almost unfair. Stevens is a talent, on record and in person, and I’ll gladly support him for as long as he makes music, no matter where he plays it.