A couple of years back, as Sufjan Stevens grappled with self-doubt in the aftermath of his 2005 masterpiece Illinois, he made some candid revelations in an interview with Exclaim! Magazine: “I’m starting to get sick of my conceptual ideas. I’m tired of these grand, epic endeavours.” A period of illness added to his creative block, but Stevens found vital inspiration in the work of American artist and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ Royal Robertson. The two records he released last year (All Delighted People and The Age of Adz) saw him largely leave behind his previous banjo-led, spiritually-tinged folk sound: in its place were sprawling, ambitious tracks characterised by feverish arrangements with unpredictable twists and turns.
Both records may have been greeted with widespread acclaim, but judging by tonight’s incredible show, the full extent of Stevens’ vision was only hinted at on record. Fleshed out on stage by a 10-piece band and complemented by dazzling visuals, the material reaches a whole new level. First off: a short support set from DM Stith (also a member of Stevens’ current touring band) is very impressive in its own right. The four songs he plays are hypnotic and evocative, utilising Stevens’ horn players sparingly but very effectively. It’s a notably reverent and attentive crowd as well, with a welcome lack of background chatter.
Stevens opens with a breathtaking version of ‘Seven Swans’, the kind of number that lets you know you’re in for a show. It slowly and ominously builds, with the singer spotlit against a dark background. When the whole band kicks in and the stage lights up, the full scale of their set-up becomes apparent: the two female backing dancers/singers as well as Stevens himself sport massive wings, while celestial images float across a mesh screen. The off-kilter electronics of ‘Too Much’ and the grandstanding bombast of ‘The Age of Adz’ follow, and a visual theme starts to become apparent: the band are decked out in Tron-like neon costumes, various laser formations spread across the mesh screen, while the background projections feature tongue-in-cheek advertising homages as well as artwork from the aforementioned Robertson. It’s visual and sonic overload at its finest, with unmistakeable nods to prog-rock spectacle. The lyrical subject matter, meanwhile, is laid out by Stevens: love, death, the the apocalypse, the cosmos, paranoia, narcissism and all points inbetween.
Up until the encore it’s all new material: while some of the more restless, delirious songs occasionally seemed to be tripping over themselves on record, the live spectacle enhances them, with synchronised dancing and dramatic visual flourishes at just the right moments. It’s immaculately paced as well: the more grandiose parts of the set are balanced with quieter, more atmospheric material like ‘Now That I’m Older’ and a spine-tingling ‘Vesuvius’. Toy Casio keyboards, declamatory horns, abrasive electronics and hymnal harmonies feature throughout the two-and-half-hour set.
In an enlightening spoken-word portion, Stevens expands on the creative struggles that he alluded to in that 2009 interview, explaining that he’d grown wary of traditional song structures and now prefers to approach music in terms of sound and texture. While this would come across as indulgent or pretentious in other circumstances or from other artists, here it’s another fascinating aspect of an absorbing set. He explains how Robertson’s artwork – informed by paranoia and apocalyptic visions – inspired the agitated themes of The Age of Adz, while he later notes that the Olympia lay-out resembles a spaceship: another visual/thematic tie-in.
The sincerity is mixed with a sense of fun, however. An immense version of ‘Impossible Soul’, the 25-minute …Adz closing track, sees the singer-songwriter throwing all kinds of shapes while donning a simian mask; the backing dancers run to the front of the stage just as the ecstatic “it’s a long life” section kicks in, and confetti is soon covering the Olympia. The end of the set proper prompts a rapturous reception, while the mass clapping and stamping of feet during the encore break is so loud the Queen probably hears it across town. Sufjan eventually returns – more plainly dressed this time – and takes to the piano for an excellent version of ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting’, the opening track from Illinois. A celebratory, grin-inducing ‘Chicago’, complete with giant balloons, brings the night to a close.
Good to have him back in control of his muse, then: Stevens might have changed his creative outlook, but his knack for “grand, epic endeavours” remains as strong as ever. More performance art than gig, live music is rarely this spectacular.
Photos: Julie Bienvenu.
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