Kidding; they’re all about the dead
Sufjan Stevens commenced his first, full Australian tour since the release of his 2015 album Carrie and Lowell on Monday 22nd February in Sydney. Fortunately for those of us living in the nation’s capital, the tour included a stop at the Canberra Theatre last month as well.
Upon the announcement of a Canberra tour date, I was dreamily ecstatic. My year had included an international move, a long-term relationship break down, the start of my university years and a furious grappling with the idea of pursuing my childhood faith independently.
Although the content of Carrie and Lowell primarily concentrates on Stevens’ tumultuous relationship with his mother and stepfather. With glimpses of hope, feelings of abandonment and sorrow juxtaposing each other lyrically, I (like so many angst ridden teens) found a refuge in it. To an extent, I was able to relate to the heart-aching pain and lack of closure depicted by Stevens. Most importantly, it was his honesty in clinging to the familiar, and appealing to the supernatural at his most vulnerable moments.
What astounded me about his live performance was his ability to recreate this sense of transcendent fragility and impending mortality, which I so regularly connected with in the comfort of my own bedroom. As the lights in the theatre began to dim, the band silently made their way onto the stage. Faint scuffling of feet and the sound of stringed instruments being cradled were all that could be noted, as tangible anticipation built within the crowd. The instrumental piece “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)” dominated by a piano and haunting backing harmonies, opened the show, adding to the pensieve excitement for Stevens’ arrival. Seamlessly, the figure seated behind the piano, moved to centre stage, simultaneously picking up a guitar and revealing himself as Sufjan Stevens, humble and barely distinguishable from the rest of his extremely talented band. Within seconds, the instantaneously recognisable opening picking line to “Death With Dignity” began to play, causing the crowd, still recovering from the shock of Stevens’ surprise appearance, to draw in a collective breath.
It was at this point that I began to cry.
Although Stevens’ first few lines of the verse were slightly shaky, he quickly recovered, reaching celestial falsettos accompanied by mesmerising, instrumental swells. Hit after hit was played, one after the other, with a grand total of ten of the 22 songs performed stemming from the album. Highlights included “Fourth of July”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Blue Bucket of Gold”. Numerous songs coincided with home videos of Stevens and his parents, the advantage of hindsight making the suffering of those involved even more poignant.
After an extended request for an encore from the audience, Stevens re-entered the stage, wearing his trademark trucker hat and recounting humorously morbid stories about death from his childhood; think beeswax coffins and clogs. This transformed the atmosphere completely from a stage performance, into that of an intimate gig at a bar. Post guitar tuning, Stevens burst into a cover of The Innocence Mission’s “The Lakes of Canada” before being joined once again by the band, who all gathered around one central microphone. It felt like a late night chat with close friends.
Highlights from the stripped back set of the second half included “The Dress Looks Nice on You” and “To be Alone With You” both from the 2004 album Seven Swans and the closing number “Chicago” from Stevens’ “Illinois” album. The sensitive and harmonious cooperation of instruments coupled with the simplicity of the vocals, allowed for upbeat, but an equally delicate performance which captivated the audience.
By the end of the evening, I struggled to spot a single listener still in their seat. Stevens had evoked a level of emotion and self-reflection that was incomparable and difficult to describe.