Those puzzled by Sufjan Stevens’ recently released The Age of Adz, a noisy, messy, electronic-heavy and blisteringly vulnerable album, probably haven’t been paying close enough attention to his career.
The charming and whimsical baroque indie pop of Illinois and Michigan that launched him into indie superstardom is still a part of Stevens, but his desire to explore new creative territories is evident in his post-Illinois period — a five-year stretch where we didn’t get a new song-based album, but rather a collection of b-sides, an orchestral multimedia piece dedicated to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, re-released Christmas EPs, a revisiting of an earlier electronic album with band Osso and a few tantalizing bits of background work on songs from The National.
It was unlikely that Stevens was going to tread familiar territory again, even if that’s where his legions of fans wanted to see him go. He acknowledged as much during Wednesday night’s concert at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas, noting that many in the audience might have been expecting him to strum a banjo for two hours.
And though a number of the songs from the new record simply baffled the hipsters sitting near me, eventually Stevens won the crowd over with a combination of heartfelt enthusiasm for his new work, cogent explanations of the process that caused the album to come forth and unabashed physical joy. Dancing at a Sufjan Stevens show? Hell yes.
Stevens described being sick of the concept album phase, and wanting to create a record with more impulsiveness, and The Age of Adz somehow comes off as both. It’s not nearly as meticulous as his previous work and it explores a variety of sounds in a deconstructionist manner, but it’s hard to consider an album inspired by the apocalyptic, celestial folk art of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson as just a simple collection of songs.
The spirit of Robertson (whose artwork adorns the album) was Stevens’ guide through the creative process, leading Stevens to write an album that “confuses heartbreak with the apocalypse.” The resulting songs are intense and emotionally open confessions of selfishness and failure, underpinned by cosmic explosions of sound. This is an extremely personal piece of work, which becomes all the more obvious when seeing Stevens perform it in person.
The show opened with one of its few non-Adz numbers, the title track from Stevens’ folky, biblical record Seven Swans. The song began as a faithful interpretation of the album version, but the full ensemble of 11 people (background singers, brass section, guitars, piano, two drummers, various electronics) soon roared in thunderously on the chorus before beginning to deconstruct the melody.
Stevens allowed for two folk song “palate cleansers” from his recent All Delighted People EP throughout the set, but save for the final song, the rest was all from The Age of Adz in a spectacular run that explored nearly every haunting, tragic, silly, noisy and introspective moment on the record, culminating in the 25-minute “Impossible Soul,” which also ends the album.
“Impossible Soul” runs the gamut of emotion and style, and it is a thing of wonder to behold live. Stevens described it as “an awesome form of public humiliation,” which one could interpret as having to do with the dancing (a middle section launches into a dance groove, with a neon visor-adorned Stevens showing his best white boy moves) or the eventual lyrics in the soft-sung conclusion (“I’m nothing but a selfish worm / I’m nothing but a privileged puppet / And did you think I’d stay the night / And did you think I’d love you forever?”).
The song’s repeated refrain “Boy, we can do much more together” eventually turns into the hushed realization that “Boy, we made such a mess together” and the past 25 minutes come rushing together as a cathartic, public exorcism of guilt, loss and pain. It’s an amazing piece of work, full of heartbreak and joy, and Stevens bares his soul entirely. The song was met with a roaring standing ovation, as if the audience finally understood what Stevens had been trying to communicate throughout the show with his remarks between songs.
The show wrapped up with a somewhat perfunctory performance of Stevens’ most recognizable hit, “Chicago,” which elicited a much bigger crowd response. That’s understandable, but one wonders if it’s not a little disappointing for him, especially after the 25-minute marathon of what just might be his greatest song yet.
A three-song encore featured Stevens alone on the piano, plunking out a quick version of Illinois opener “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” then joined by half of his band for the beautiful and sad “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” which Stevens dedicated to Royal Robertson’s widow, Adell, who he said was in attendance that night.
The show was opened with a short four-song set from fellow Asthmatic Kitty artist DM Stith, who then joined Stevens’ band on the piano and guitar.
Complete Set List:
“Age of Adz”
“Now That I’m Older”
“Get Real Get Right”
“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
“Casimir Pulaski Day”
“The Dress Looks Nice on You”