"A broken heart doesn't have to mean the end of the world, or the apocalypse," said Sufjan Stevens to the Uptown's hushed crowd last night. "It always feels like it, huh?"
For Stevens, it sounds like the apocalypse, too. The singer-songwriter filled the Uptown last night with his haunting cacophony, filled with fragments of madness, sorrow, and delicate beauty.
The songs came from his latest album, The Age of Adz. Stevens' new palette of sound was evident from a brief glance at the stage. While twelve musicians shared it with him, it was wiped clean of bird wings and cheerleaders, and Stevens' banjo and guitar was swapped for an electronic switchboard.
For those uninitiated in The Age Of Adz' sound, Stevens took a hard left into electronic territory for his new album - the first in five years, since the singer-songwriter's sprawling 2005 masterpiece, Illinois. The Age of Adz sounds a bit like 2000's uneven, manic-depressive A Sun Came, filled out with Stevens' matured, sweeping symphonic vision. In a live setting, the album's serrated edges are much less angular and grizzled, an take on an unexpected organic softness.
"It's been a while," Stevens admitted, after the heart-wrenching simplicity of "Now That I'm Older." "I had some rough times, and I found that songwriting was no longer loyal to me." As Stevens has acknowledged in interviews, he became tired of the corner that he's painted himself into with his sweet, acoustic ballads. After going epic with 2007's symphony dedicated to the BQE, it makes sense why Stevens is no longer simply satisfied with the song as a medium. Stevens went on to tell the crowd -- in detail, as though we were sitting at coffee with him -- about how madness and confusion seemed to overtake him when he sat down to write music.
(Important note: Stevens' muse was the cryptic art of a schizophrenic Louisana sign-painter, Royal Robinson, who he imagined sitting next to him as he wrote The Age of Adz. Go figure.)
Of course, Stevens told us about his creative turmoil multiple times in song, too: So I won't say it at all...Although that sounds dumb, words are futile devices. "Futile Devices" acknowledges that feeling is more than words can express. In a way, it seems like Sufjan's songs acknowledged that feeling is more than song can express. Instead, they sounded like a relation of head-space, and conflicting impulses and thoughts that live within a person's mind. The result was a symphonic slop of jarring noise, with a lingering beauty and delicate structure that still bore the artist's unmistakable imprint.
All of this serious, bloody introspection was lightened by Stevens' self-effacing sense of humor -- The Muppets Take Manhattan, Cats, and Andrew Lloyd Weber all received name-checks -- and his (!) robotic dance moves. Stevens looked like a Brooklyn hipster: he sported a neon Nike shirt with the sleeves cut off, a fluorescent yellow sweatband. Even his back-up girls had coordinated dance moves that they performed in shiny, angular tops that looked a bit inspired by Lady Gaga. He regarded his material with a levity that was both odd, and oddly appropriate. "Put your slow-jam pants on," he warned, before launching into the ineffably beautiful "I Walked."
(Stevens even forgot his own lyrics on "Enchanting Ghost." "Make it up!" someone from the crowd called. "Did you cut your hands on me," another volunteered from the back. Other than these shouted praises -- "You're still my favorite!" a guy assured Stevens, after he apologized -- the crowd was reverently hushed. It felt a bit like what I imagined that legendary Sigur Ros concert felt like in 2008.)
"So, if you don't mind, for the next 25 minutes, we're going to participate in an intense emotional psychotherapy session," he said, introducing the night's opus: "Impossible Soul."
As unappetizing as that sounded, at the climax of the half-hour song - really, he wasn't kidding -- a roaring howl of sound filled the Uptown with a thudding, static madness. Multiple melodies slithered through the noise, emerging like the clear tones of bells before diving back down into the sea of sound. It was, for a brief moment, the sound inside the head of a songwriter, going insane: dozens of songs, swirled into one gigantic whirl of conflicting voices and narratives.
(For the record, watching Sufjan noodle on the electric guitar was even more distracting live than on his records. Stevens fiddled with his guitar more than he played it, pressing an inordinate amount of pedals to make sounds that sound like scrubbing, feedback, and Galaga.)
On the brink of true cacophony, the sound stopped. Feedback buzzed. Blue lights lit the stage. Stevens grabbed white sunglasses, a fluorescent yellow visor, and shiny tinsel ponytail. (What the fuck?) The keyboardist donned a chicken head. Looking like a bad parody of a Williamsburg DJ, Stevens immediately cued up a funky, pop-flavored dance jam that, at its more hollow moments, sounded like the neon exuberance of MGMT. He even quoted Salt N Pepa's "Push It," before grabbing his knee and doing a flopping knee-jerk. And the robot. And then, he had autotune...and then, he had a vocoder. The crowd cheered.
Happily, the cocaine-flavored dance jam began to warp, as Stevens led the melody into a really uncomfortable key, before stripping it completely into a Seven Swans-style acoustic number. The crowd chuckled, as he repeated his formerly ecstatic refrains with a wide-eyed sincerity. Boy, we could do much together, his female vocalist intoned sweetly. Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure. Boy, we made such a mess together, he sang, wrapping up the dazzling spectrum of his own head into one neat phrase.
The backup dancer snapped a photo of the crowd, going wild.
"Kansas City..." He grimaced, thinking. "Missouri. The city of Applebees. The city of Hallmark cards. The city of so many law firms," he said, laughing. "The city of blues and jazz," he conceded, to the crowd's cheers. Stevens thanked us for our "fortitude, endurance, and patience" for listening to a set of new music, before giving the crowd three Illinois nuggets: a thudding, ribcage-rattling "Chicago," "Concerning a UFO Sighting in Highland, Illinois," and "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
In a smart twist of perspective, Stevens' last song brought the focus back to where it began: on him. The night ended with an eerie moment when a really silent, solemn crowd reprised an empathetic song about a serial killer. And on my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid, Stevens trailed off. Last night, those words seemed obsolete. Stevens had taken Kansas City on a tour through the monsters, insecurities and sadness in his dark corners - and the beauty that lies there, too.
Critics' Bias: I cried.
Overheard in the Crowd: Aside from that one drunk girl shouting ILOVEYOUSUFJANBLAHHH during one of Stevens' confessional coffee-shop-talks, there wasn't much to overhear. Reverend Sufjan was in the pulpit, my friends, and nary a word was whispered.
Random Notebook Dump: "This is about considering the mouth of the volcano."
Confession: I missed the first two songs. This is because Stevens went onstage at 8:45 PM, sharp. (Why so early?!) This realization was accompanied with many, many, many expletives, and hurts me much more than it hurts you. Believe me. Here's a partially complete set list.
The Age of Adz
Now That I'm Older
Get Real Get Right
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.