Auckland Arts Festival: Sufjan Stevens
Tuesday 8th March
The Civic, Auckland
Reviewed by MARIA JI
I had always thought that the thing that gave the album Carrie & Lowell the space to be so poignant was the simple instrumentals. They put the focus on Sufjan Stevens’ vocals – that eerie voice perpetually floating in an ocean of resignation and regret. It feels like he is whispering of his grief into your ear; it feels like you’re watching the unraveling of personhood in the face of death.
Which just goes to show how impossible it is to describe what it is that makes Stevens’ music so magical. In the final concert of his New Zealand tour, Stevens (and the other members of the five-human band) play arrangements more complex than the minimalist ones on the album. And, unbelievably, they manage to achieve even greater emotional depths.
The arrangements are heavier – more bass, more synths – and many of the songs just build and build and build, in volume and in layering. The effect is an intensification of tragedy. He isn’t just quietly sailing through his feelings anymore. He is desperately calling across a vast chasm to another person; he uses music to try and reach across death to those he has lost. As an audience, we don’t know if these beloved people can hear his cries from the other side. But we can hear him, and that’s what makes it all so devastating.
The world of his grief is illuminated and transformed further by the inventive lighting and video production. Stevens and the band is engulfed in jaws of light in Should Have Known Better, only to stand in a tumour of red in Drawn to the Blood. Sometimes, as in The Only Thing, Stevens sings through a shroud of light. Other times, he is trapped in a spider web. In Blue Bucket of Gold, two strobe lights flash like distant stars that demand our gaze.
Dawn Landes, the somewhat underwhelming opening act, is hauntingly beautiful as harmoniser, instrumentalist, and lone female figure in Stevens’ show. A particularly aching moment is when she stands in near-complete darkness at the center of the stage in Blue Bucket of Gold. The two strobe lights stroke the edges of her hair but never reveal more of this silhouetted figure, a visual metaphor for the fruitless yearning that fills Sufjan Stevens’ music.
This otherworldly main act of songs about death is followed by a long, intimate encore of older songs with little to no special effects. This encore is where Stevens and the band show more of their humanity, missing the odd entry, forgetting a line or two, cracking jokes about their mistakes.
In between To Be Alone With You and Casimir Pulaski Day, Stevens reads us some quotes by philosopher Michel de Montaigne, and talks to us about death. It’s not an explanation for the explorations that occurred in the main act. He simply pulls our untethered minds back to the real world with an inspiring reminder. The world of death is one we must all encounter and confront, but we shouldn’t inhabit it or get engulfed by it. Instead, we can use it to empower us “to live more in the present” – a present where we consider the value of the things that occupy our minds.
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