Sufjan Stevens dazzles with light show, lyricism in Philly

Photo by Z.L. Zhou

This past week in the Academy of Music: Sufjan Stevens walked onto the stage in complete darkness. Dual spotlights shone down from below as he began to play the piano, singing, “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you. And I don’t know where to begin.” Screaming ensued, and so began the critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalist’s most recent tour to promote his new album “Carrie & Lowell”.

Stevens’s album, released just over two weeks ago, has already been met with rave reviews. Although his last two LPs, “Illinois” and “The Age of Adz” were largely bombastic, decorated affairs punctuated with brass, “Carrie & Lowell” is a much more stripped-back work, carefully adored with Stevens’s tenor-falsetto harmonies. No wonder, since the album deals largely with his feelings towards his schizophrenic and bipolar mother’s death.

For most of the concert, Stevens along with his accompanists said nothing about the album or the individual songs. He probably felt as if nothing needed to be said. As he played, a series of screens with shapes reminiscent of church windows showed videos of vivid colors, childhood videos, sunsets, and confusions of violet.

Halfway through the concert, Stevens spoke directly to the crowd for the first and only time. Reflecting on the process of writing this album and what it meant to him, he semi-jokingly, semi-seriously apologized for the content evening’s program, acknowledging that “It’s weird, to sing so much about death … but I think we should think of death as a companion, one that reminds us to be alive.” Although somewhat kitschy in the light of day, his words felt like a bold pronouncement — at least, as bold a pronouncement as you could expect from someone who had just sang, “Do I care if I survive this? Bury the dead where they’re found.” His voice slightly shaky, it was hard to not take his words as they were meant.

Although the evening consisted almost entirely of a straight run-through of “Carrie & Lowell”, the applause was overwhelming as he finished his last song. To the shock of absolutely no one, the applause continued, unabated, until he returned to the stage for an encore, thanking the audience for being there and playing two songs from “Illinois” and one song from “Seven Swans” before ending with a rock rendition of his most well-known song, “Chicago”. The applause, still as loud as the last time, was unfortunately not enough to convince him to play more.

At the expense of sounding like a rabid fanboy — well, I am a rabid fanboy, so whatever — seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert was an incredible experience, one that really did meet and exceed all of my expectations. The lightshow/video display was a great touch, one that resisted being distracting even as the disco balls dropped. Although he is unlikely to return to Philadelphia on this tour, I recommend that everyone not from the immediate vicinity find out if he’s playing near you at any point in the next few months. And then buy some tickets! Go! Listen to some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever heard.

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