Sufjan Stevens' new album, The Age of Adz, is a big, complicated, ambitious, conceptual album—even by his (partially) established "50 States" standards. Luckily, last night at the Paramount, he was happy to explain.
"These new songs are songs of heartache, heart sickness, disease, and mental illness, all rendered through the lens of apocalypse, the end of the world. Because there's no healthier way to view love-sickness than through the myths and standardizations of the end of the world. I know it's a little dramatic...but it pays the bills."
Later, Stevens told the audience about folk artist Royal Robertson, whose work provided inspiration, imagery, and lyrical themes for Adz. He told the crowd that Robertson's poster paintings derived from dreams, visions, visitations from angels, and depicted the end of the world, massive storms, hurricanes, time travel, space travel, myths (especially Norse myths) mixed with comic book characters and sci-fi movies. He said they also came from Robertson's schizophrenia, at which much of the audience fucking laughed, like schizophrenia is a hilarious joke. (To be fair to the audience: this was clearly a crowd of cultish Sufjan superfans; if they thought their hero was making a joke, they would want to laugh loud enough for him to hear, even if they didn't understand what was supposed to be funny. So maybe that was what was happening here. But seriously, guys, what the hell?) I for one wouldn't have minded hearing a little about how one differentiates mental illness from religious experience, but that's just me.
Stevens went on to talk about how, when preparing to write this album, he'd been experimenting with synthesizers and effects pedals and felt like he was slipping into a kind of madness, which he compared to Robertson's madness, only Robertson's was productive, whereas Stevens' at the time was not. "Of course, he had mental illness, and I don't. He lived in rural Louisiana; I live in New York City, where there's lots of distractions. He was a Southern black man; I'm a white Yankee. Really, we have nothing in common." So why use him, Stevens asked, before giving the answer to why any relatively privileged white artist borrows from poor old black artists: because it seemed "cool." Still, Stevens seems to approach Robertson with the same genuine care and depth of interest that he does all his subjects, from the BQE to John Wayne Gacy, and he ended his speech about Robertson like it was a PSA, noting that not many people know about the outsider artist, but hoping that maybe now this audience knows about him and they'll go check him out. "He doesn't even have a website!"
That out of the way, how was the show? Fantastic. Stevens played with a 10-piece band, including two drummers, two keyboardists on baby upright pianos, guitar, bass, trombone, two girls singing backup vocals and doing synchronized dance routines along with one other dedicated dancer. Stevens played banjo and guitars and synthesizer; he sang and busted a few cute little dance moves of his own—some popping, some robot, some boy band style slides and hip swivels. (It has been mentioned somewhere that Stevens is a ridiculously bright-eyed and attractive man, yes? We needn't belabor this point? Good.) Leading up to this tour, Stevens talked in interviews about not knowing how the band would recreate the electronics-heavy songs of Adz live, but they did it simply enough, with various band members rotating to synth stations for certain songs and with at least one of the drummers' acoustic kits augmented with an electronic drum pad.
They were dressed up maybe a little more than usual for Halloween (Stevens joked that they were having a costume contest with $100 at stake), with Stevens wearing angel wings, one drummer sporting a Nixon mask, one guitarist dressed as a clown, the backup singer/dancers in silver lame, and with feather boas, tinfoil hats, and glowstick necklaces/bracelets all around. They played in front of a video screen and occasionally behind a scrim, onto which were projected animations inspired by Robertson's work (planets, hand drawn spaceships), stop-motion video of Stevens and crew busting dance moves against a white wall, and abstract imagery varying from star-bursts of color to Tron-like geometric lines. For "Vesuvius," which Stevens introduced with a story about biking around Crater Lake and being impressed with the feeling of "wanting to throw yourself in" at natural thresholds such as Mt. St. Helens or Niagra Falls, the scrim came back down and abstract orange and red flames licked up and gradually engulfed the band.
The band's set was pretty much the new album, plus "Seven Swans," "Chicago," and an encore; they switched up the sequencing, but things still climaxed with the 25-minute long "Impossible Soul," the album's "magnum opus of love and madness," as Stevens described it, adding that the song's distinct sections cycled through many psycho-therapeutic phases, only with the audience as therapist and the band charging us. For this song, an upside-down diamond shaped screen descended behind Stevens and a strobing, horizontal-hold pattern was projected onto it while Stevens belted out Auto-tuned R.Kelly-caliber R&B-isms (only without all that moral messiness) and danced in duet with his girls—"boy, we can do much more together/it's not so impossible," and "it's a long life/only one last chance/couldn't get much better/do you wanna dance?"
That "do you wanna dance," by the way, when the chord changes, reaching up for high hopeful note, is maybe the most optimistic moment in music I've heard all year. That optimism—even in the face of some serious sad-sack subject matter—is a big part of Stevens' appeal, beyond merely his insane musical and compositional chops. Maybe it's the kind of optimism that only someone who really believes in salvation can seriously offer up. In the next song, "Chicago"—a song that, at least as of last night, still gives me shivers—when Stevens sings "I made a lot of mistakes," it's not wallowing or self-pity, it's an absolution: we all fuck up; everything passes; everything is forgiven. I think we'd all like to believe that.