Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sufjan Stevens: A Release of Grief

Sufjan Stevens wiped tears from his eyes as he moved his way through song after song about his mother and her death. His show at the Beacon Theatre this week corresponded with his recent  release of the intensely personal album Carrie and Lowell about his alcoholic and schizophrenic mother who abandoned his family when he was a child and his step-father who he formed a close bond with.

This was the first time I had seen Stevens on stage. Previous tours had been described to me as goofy and full of humor with silly costumes and lasers. But tonight's show was nothing like that.  It could not be.  Not with this album.  

It's a challenging album to tour. How do you take something so close to you and share it with the world and then look them in the eyes while doing that. Something purged in the privacy of a studio is a lot different when put on a stage before a crowd. But it's supremely brave and honest. And he let it all come out. He let his catharsis be our catharsis.  It may be one of the most unusual but moving musical performances I have ever seen.
It was as if we were watching private grief manifest itself on a massive stage. This was raw emotion rendered in song. There was no banter. There was no context.  We did not need it. It was song, sadness, and silence. Conjuring complex images of love, pain, confusion, abandonment, heartbreak, and loss it felt like a seance and exorcism wrapped all into one. 

With home movies flashing behind him, we saw what I imagine were the faces of Carrie and Lowell as children.  Before all that happened, happened.  Sometimes we saw serene scenes of nature (coastal waters, burning sunsets, evergreen tree tops) possibly referencing Oregon where Carrie and Lowell lived and Stevens spent time with them.  The stage lights flashed into the audience quite often. Each time they did I felt like he was casting the spirits out to us.  Releasing something with each brief song. 

It seemed so private that it was hard to know when to clap. It felt rude to interrupt the sonic bubble with our applause.  And it felt like anything but a "regular" stage show that called for applause after every number. 
Just let him get through this, I thought.  It was as if I was holding my breath because if I exhaled too strongly or clapped too loud I'd break it. And yet, maybe he needed us there.  A grounding force to come back to.  Something solid in a sea of sadness.  Or in knowing we were listening, he was not alone.  I was happy to play my part.

The crowd was surprisingly patient and attentive (save all the people going to get drinks and taking bathroom breaks--as a theatergoer I'll never get used to music gig behavior), giving him the space he needed without hooting and hollering as is so often the case.

At times I had to look away. The grief was too real. Too personal. But his voice did not waver. It was only wiping his tears away with his hands that gave away what he was experiencing. He had given us everything in song.  Repeating, "we're all going to die" over and over in Fourth of July was not a lyricist getting dark but a man confronting his mortality and our own. We had no choice but to contemplate this with him.  And I'm not sure I've experienced a music show that asked that of the audience (it might be a little more common to me in my theater-going).  What an unexpectedly human act. 
What a gift.  

The arrangements with his band were gorgeous, naturally.  And I always find live performance adds to an understanding of a performer beyond the polished studio album but these songs which can feel small and intimate on the album filled the space of the large theater.  He built them up to do so and even if singing these songs was a personal act he did not neglect the audience in this manner. 

After an hour of this private/public spiritual cleansing, he stepped forward with a banjo and spoke to the audience for the first time. He asked us to welcome in and celebrate life (and apologized to his out of tune banjo for neglecting it until this point in the show).  He proceeded with the second half of the show where he visited older material.  Nevertheless the tone of the evening it remained within the spirit of the new work. Quiet, somber, and reverent.

It might not be the kind of evening everyone craves. But how can you reject such intimacy, confession, sharing, and truth.  I'm looking forward to seeing the show again when he comes to Brooklyn in May.

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