“So how was the gig?”
“I don’t know”
“What, you mean you didn’t go?”
“No, I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m confused”
“But it was three days ago!”
Such is the problem with trying to review a Sufjan Stevens gig these days. Years ago, it was easy. You’d just say “It was lovely. He’s this really sweet bloke who plays beautiful acoustic guitar and tells little stories about the songs and it was a great evening.”. Now, six years on, he’s up there with 11 other people, all dressed in neon, with strobes, visuals, balloons, costume changes that Lady Gaga would think was overkill, and confusing, multi-layered electronic orchestral numbers that go on for about 20 bloody minutes1.
Which makes writing this a right royal pain in the arse. There’s so much to say I don’t know where to start. The songs? They go on for ages. The dancing? Charmingly inept. The costumes? Mad. The intra-song soliloquies? Madder. How this show could well be a reflection of an artist’s descent into a parlous mental state, and how he is using the enormous stage of the Royal Festival Hall to exorcise his demons, along with ten clearly hugely talented musicians, bringing to life his vision of the impending End Of The World as much as the impending End Of Sufjan Steven’s Sanity (or his “love song to the Apocalypse”)?
Sufjan’s personal problems have been fairly well documented in recent months. There is always a danger with artists that you can read too much of their personal life into a new artistic direction, but in Sufjan’s case? Man, he has troubles. Whatever was the cause of his issues, he clearly is still working through them, and is doing it onstage, in full, brightly coloured view. As he points out himself, The Age Of Adz is one big solipsistic statement, all “I” and his obsessions with his confusion and the end of the world. Compared to the older material, which was fuelled with beautifully judged and delicate evocations of love, desire, religion and the invention of the Ferris wheel, and you can safely say that it’s lacking. Frankly, hearing him sing “I’m not fucking around” or “Boy, we can do much more together” a hundred times just starts to wear thin.
So anyway, to the gig. Starting off with a version of “Seven Swans” that starts off gentle but soon turns into pure U2 bombast, the view seems slightly odd. There’s angels on the stage, and people dressed in neon, and an organist, but everything seems kind of…fuzzy. Then an unseen (from the balcony) screen lifts and it is as though the scales have fallen from our eyes, and the full neon bedazzlement commences. Each band member is dressed head-to-toe in neon, there’s stuff all round the stage, big lights, and a huge video screen. Oh, and strobes. Lots of strobes. Then comes “Too Much”, kicking off the night’s main set, all taken from his last two records, which feels far more alive than on record. Yes, I know that sounds like a daft thing to say, but I was deeply concerned that such esoteric material, which isn’t exactly warm and lovely on record, might just be a step too far live, even for someone as extravagantly talented as our man Sufjan.
This isn’t to knock the new material. I haven’t been a massive fan of either All Delighted People or Adz, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. In some cases, such as “Age Of Adz” or “Vesuvius”, they work superbly. The former featured a wonderful coda, with the words “It’s only that I still love you deeply\It’s all the love I got” reverberating around the huge space of the Royal Festival Hall, bringing a tear to our collective eye. The latter saw the deployment of the screen again, upon which flames were projected, rising higher and higher through the song until the band nearly vanished under the lava. The whole Bootsy Collins vibe appealed greatly, too.
Helps too that the sound is magnificent. I can’t remember a gig where there’s more than ten people on stage yet you can still pick out each and every instrument clearly. The visuals veered between the stunning – the dancing ones starting during “Too Much”, then reappearing, cut up and distorted during “Impossible Soul”; the geometric patterns; the screen behind which the band started the gig and made us worry our eyes were going funny – and the amateurish. In particular, I can’t say I’m a fan of Royal Robertson’s work, and though Sufjan made an impassioned plea, the evening failed to win me over to his charms. Let’s chalk this down to one damaged soul seeking another, shall we?
But “Impossible Soul” just went on, and on, and on. Yes, there was much dancing and rejoicing and balloons and the whole “Let’s All Party Because We Are Free! Oh And We’re All Going To Die” thing. Is it really worth hearing all 25 minutes when he could have played “John Wayne Gacy Jr”, “…Predatory Wasp of the Palisades…”, “That Dress Looks Nice On You”, “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and still had time for one of his baffling but entertaining chats with the crowd?
For me, no. Whilst the evening was hugely entertaining, a ridiculous, baffling and extraordinary event, the best part was the encore. The band returning to a hastily cleared stage, still covered with the detritus of the climax, in jeans and t-shirts, and playing three songs from “Illinois”. During the second, “Casimir Pulaski Day”, the crowd ever so gently start singing along. For those songs, written at the peak of his powers, show us what he can be, how he can craft hugely ambitious songs that tell a tale other than his pain, with music that charts something other than the confusion in his soul, and speak to all of us, uniting us.
He’s a unique talent alright. For all its faults, this was a stunning evening, quite unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever seen before. Whilst there was more than a sniff of Rock Opera2 about the night, we were thoroughly amused, bemused, exasperated, and above all, entertained. And, it’s made me reassess The Age Of Adz and give it a few more listens, and I’m liking it a bit more. It’s still nowhere near his States albums, or Seven Swans, but at least now I can see where he’s coming from with it. Plus, listening to it reminds me of a truly mad bit of entertainment.
Mad, I tell you. But fun. My brain is still hurting.
And TWOAG? The Week Of American Greats. Keep up.
1 Prompting my friend S to comment that she very nearly threw herself off the balcony.
2 Thanks Mrs L&L!
Note: Photos taken by PaulineLouise on Songkick.