To change gears a little, I was at Sufjan Stevens’ show in the Olympia this week and was really struck by his use of performance space. A few thoughts on the event coming up just as soon as I tell a volcano I’m insecure ...
"Words are futile devices" - Futile Devices
For those unacquainted: Sufjan (pronounced Soof-Yahn) Stevens is a singer-songwriter and musician from Michigan. His work has many referring to him as a disciple of the folk revival in indie pop. Writing music to various time signatures and enriching melodies with a fleet of instruments, the banjo-toting folk Superman has often done battle over the past twelve years with the evil inherent in the world and, more treacherously, ourselves. He regularly draws on spiritual traditions, especially Christianity, to crystallize the fragile states of ‘living’ and ‘faith’ that lie between his words and music. With a background in creative writing, there is an immense amount of scholarship to his songs, and references in lyrics encourage great speculation on the life narrative of Sufjan or the ‘Sufjan’ he chooses to portray. One can claim that “The man in the window” that he angrily confronts at the third height of Impossibe Soul, immaculately powered by auto-tune, could refer to the God Our Lord that kindly showed his face in the window in Casimir Pulaski Day. One can question the ambiguous homoeroticism in interactions such as kissing his camp-friend in the billowing romantic The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades, his intimacy with the “bathing boy” in All For Myself or the revelation at the end of Futile Devices that the lover disappearing from his memory is in fact male. One can argue that recent electronic epic The Age of Adz is the album prophetically promised by the experimentally adventurous Enjoy Your Rabbit ten years ago.
Stevens’ character is a kind well-mannered one, and to listen to his songs is to feel for the man who sings them. Drenched in the conventions of narrative (or if we were to think theatre-wise - “the dramatic tradition”), it was astonishing then to see how drastic a departure the songwriter took with recent release The Age of Adz where the banjo and the formalities of folk writing are left at home. Raw electronics arrest Sufjan’s melodies and entwines them into a mass of sound that is unprecedented and vast. This is a different type of territory, one in which the perseverance of Sufjan’s faith and redemption has fallen further than before.
The show starts in darkness with Seven Swans, a song from the past, strung saintly on a solitary banjo. Occasional blasts of heavy piano, brass and drums light the stage, confirming the shape of angel wings on Stevens’ back. A transparent screen shields the front of the stage draped with a projection of a night sky that hits the screen as well as the back wall, giving the image a three dimensional impression. Stars start to fall from their constellations as Sufjan sings of the mysterious mercies of the ‘powers that be’; an appropriate start to the night. Light reveals the stage and the screen rises as Stevens and company powerfully deliver the climaxing lines “He will take you if you run. He will chase you because He is the Lord” directly to the audience.
I have been thinking a lot about the transparent screen at the front of the stage. It’s first revealed during this moment in Seven Swans when it catches the projections of the stars. It gives the impression of a fourth wall, physically limiting the performance space strictly to the stage where costumed performers and heavy orchestrations allow stories to thrive. The audience reaction at the beginning accommodated these sacred conditions as I never saw as quiet a crowd at a concert. In this way, the event felt very like a theatre performance. When the screen rose at the end of Seven Swans to engage the audience this element of ‘pageantry’ was put aside, reducing the ‘distance’ between performer and spectator.
Stevens takes off the wings and introduces the Adz material with the technicoloured dance piece Too Much – a track I personally find thin on recording, however, the songwriter’s intentions with digitally produced sounds and movements are brought to light in its live performance. Both the electronics and the back-up vocalists’ choreography seem excessive and inexhaustible. This is felt again later with I Walked, which is even more excessive, as Stevens dons some Kanye-esque shades and dance moves and the screen drops yet again, transforming the stage into a three-dimensional prism in which lasers flare across and bounce from wall to wall. Ultra violet saturates the performers, endowing their clothes with vibrant blues, pinks, and yellows. This hip-hop aesthetic found in the costume choice is a very curious one. The winged ‘pageantry’ of Seven Swans had significance to the content of the song but it’s hard to find a similar association with these dance songs. The intention of ‘costume’ is more stated here than anything more textual, as if to borrow some kind of counterpoint. Stevens and company seem to be using the postmodern idea of drawing our attention to the presence of physicality and visuals onstage by not providing clear signifiers to their being, and thus prompting our awareness of the capabilities and, more interestingly, limitations of action in live space.
On a textual level, our senses are also directed towards the limits of the musician’s ‘self’. The apocalyptic epic The Age of Adz blares to life as thundering trumpets and the extraterrestrial creations of Royal Robertson (the artwork of whom serves as the conceptual reference to The Age of Adz album) come crashing down on us. The singer reflexively admits: “I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing, consumed by selfish thoughts”. He painfully shares: “I’ve lost the will to fight. I was not made for life”. He is left at the edge of Vesuvius, where the screen comes down again and projections of flames engulf the stage. A tin whistle stabs at an electronic riff as Sufjan repeatedly begs the volcano to fall on top of him and put him out of his misery. He even starts to speak in the third person: “Sufjan, follow the path. It leads to an article of imminent death”. The flame projections stretch beyond the screen and begin to engulf the surrounding wall as well. Desperate for relief, he once again brings back the electronics and dancing with Get Real, Get Right; a heavily choreographed and orchestrated dance number about spaceships and aliens which unexpectedly leads the singer into an unwavering riff and a pivotal decision: “I know I’ve caused you trouble. I know I’ve caused you pain. But I must do the right thing. I must do myself a favour and get real, get right with the lord”. His determination gathers momentum in I Want to Be Well but not before the well-mannered Christian has uncharacteristically shouted “I’m not fucking around” sixteen times. Occasionally Sufjan is reunited with his folk guitar and we see glimpses of the familiar ‘him’ but even an acoustic song like Futile Devices cannot look past a frustration with convention (“Words are futile devices”).
Sufjan’s ideas all come to a head in the Adz finisher Impossible Soul, a twenty-five minute epic constructed by five different movements which crowns the night. The screen comes down and the pageantry returns as one of the back-up vocalists dons a luminous headpiece no doubt inherited by one of Royal Robertson’s space creatures. An uplifting dance beat jars with the singer’s speech to a horrible woman who he loves unconditionally: “I got it wrong ... I was trying to be something that I wasn’t at all”. A back-up vocalist sings the woman’s response, asking if he wishes to be afraid of “living life in a cage”. Our awareness of the screen and the six-walled shape it creates of the stage is prompted at this moment. The notion of the lowered screen containing and restricting the potential of the performance to the stage is arisen once again. Sufjan responds to this fiercely, demonstrating all his strength and stamina as a musical performer.
The blockading screen rises and a diamond-shaped spacecraft gloriously lowers onto the stage. Stevens places an aluminium ‘spaceman’ mantle over his head with a disco ball embedded in its chest. An auto-tuned verse empowers his frustrations, and the obvious “cheesiness” associated with such technology only feeds into the pageantry. The female back-up vocalists come to the front of the stage and along with Sufjan employ a series of dance moves and costumes that become more and more random. Pageantry and movement is kicked into overdrive to obliterate any possible metaphors or representations, and the conventional shape of ‘live music performance’ begins to crumble under all the obscurity.
Showers of confetti are released from the ceiling in celebration. A back-up vocalist climbs the wall onto the balcony and into the crowd, much to the astonishment of the audience and the surprise of the security staff. Our expectations for what may happen next are completely exhausted and all “limitations” of the performance space are brought into question as the capacity for ‘performance’ spills from the stage and washes over the audience. Performers get entwined with materials from the set as they dance freely, carelessly tripping up and knocking down microphones. Both a physical and an ideological demolition is at work here, and the resulting atmosphere is pure celebration, as the entire room shouts out: “Boy, we can do much more together; it’s not so impossible”. As the electronics and the dancing winds down Sufjan is left alone, an obscure Gorilla hat still on his flushed head, reunited with a guitar like an old friend, picking up the remnants of his song on a decimated stage, singing: “I got to tell you, boy, we made such a mess together”.
There is a mixed sense of ‘relief’ and ‘possibility’ after Impossible Soul. The song challenges the physical endurance of the performers as well as the mental endurance of the spectator who is inclined to put meanings and symbols onto actions. If there was any frustration felt in response to the “illogical” choreography and costume, it was conquered by a charged audience roaring for the performer to return for an encore. The room had been unmistakably changed by Impossible Soul, as if a new and infinite ‘space’ had been created in which the expectations associated with ‘convention’ and ‘tradition’ can in fact be defeated. Stevens returned solo with a guitar and John Wayne Gacy, Jr. This was the ‘Sufjan’ we had initially been introduced to – the storyteller – and his narrative-focused songs seem incredibly vitalized by the events that preceded them. The band return for the blockbusting Chicago, bringing giant balloons with them and throwing them out to the audience. There’s no pageantry or choreography or screen or projections here; just the entire theatre singing, propelling balloons across the room knowing that someone will catch and continue their course. Sufjan and his back-up vocalists also partake in keeping the balloons airborne. Sufjan’s payoff is a beautiful occasion which involves everyone in attendance, harmoniously linking people together by demonstrating the conventional ‘live music performance’ space in which audience and performer are distanced, and demolishing it.
A beautiful, selfless performance.
What did everybody else think?