Here’s what’s fascinating: when tickets for Sufjan Stevens at the Chicago Theatre went on sale a couple months ago, it had been a few years since he’d released any new music. Sufjan had gone on the record saying he wasn’t feeling particularly productive and began to question whether or not the album was a viable form of releasing music anymore. In other words, Sufjan announced tour dates and sold thousands of tickets, all on the assumption that he’d be playing virtually 100% old material. How quickly time flies. Less than an hour after tickets went on sale for the Chicago date of his fall tour (one week after most other cities), there was suddenly a spark of life that came in the form of the hour-long “All Delighted People” EP, immediately released in digital format via Bandcamp. So, suddenly the chances of Sufjan playing some new material on this tour increased exponentially. Then came the second surprise, the announcement of a new full length album, “The Age of Adz”, the release date of last Tuesday perfectly coinciding with the start of the tour. And so it was, over 2 hours of new Sufjan music released before his date at the Chicago Theatre, with the show pretty much sold out before most anyone was aware it existed.
So it was with another collection of very good album reviews and a certain measure of excitement that crowds packed into the Chicago Theatre last Friday night to see what Sufjan Stevens would do. With a sheer screen lowered at the front of the stage to somewhat hide the band, they emerged and launched right into an incredible version of “Seven Swans”. Given it’s extremely precious and sparse arrangement on the record of the same name, the full band rendition gave the song an entirely new life that was at least equal to, if not greater than, the original. Shapes and objects were projected onto both a screen behind the stage and the one in front of it, which was raised near the end of the song. Post-“Seven Swans”, Sufjan greeted the crowd and noted how he was excited to be able to perform some new songs for all of us. Whether or not the crowd was equally excited to hear them was another matter. What followed was 10 songs in a row, 8 of them from “The Age of Adz” and 2 of them from the “All Delighted People” EP. There’s servicing a new album, and then there’s SERVICING a new album. Sufjan chose the latter, and with the likely possibility that at least half the crowd hadn’t heard the majority if not the entirety of it. If you bought a physical copy of the album, you only had a couple days to become familiar with it, unless you streamed it online in the couple weeks prior to its release. Basically, this show was your full introduction to the new stuff, and Sufjan was more than happy to shove you in the pool without any life vest on.
While a majority of confused faces looked on, song after song passed by and Sufjan did his best to keep things lively and interesting. There were about 10 people in his backing band, two drummers, two horn players, two or three guitarists, a keyboard/piano player, and two women singing backup vocals and dancing. Sufjan himself switched around between banjo, electric guitar, keyboards, piano and a couple other instruments, and at one point simply grabbed the microphone and wandered around the front of the stage just singing. There were projections on the screen at the back of the stage the entire time, and occasionally the sheer front stage screen would come down and add more projections. Shapes and space and planets and UFOs all flew around haphazardly, and as Sufjan explained mid-set, it was all inspired by the little-known artist Royal Robertson, whose art graces the cover of “The Age of Adz”. Apparently during the last couple years when he was “creatively challenged”, Robertson’s art spoke to him and snapped him out of that slump. The guy was a paranoid schizophrenic and had some wild ideas about the end of the world, aliens and numerology. It also made for some interesting musical choices on Sufjan’s part, and either listening to the album or simply seeing it performed live will prove that to you. And though there was a clear disconnect between what the music happening on stage and the audience filling the seats, a few moments really did strike home. “I Walked”, the first “single” and a free download from “The Age of Adz”, hit hard probably for those exact reasons. Also, the sheer shock of thet 25.5 minute “Impossible Soul”, complete with Auto-Tune breakdown, caused an intense burst of enthusiasm from the crowd with applause and cheering that was at the level of about 5 songs combined, because that’s essentially what it was. If you’re going to play the city of Chicago though, and you’ve got a song with that exact title that turned into your biggest hit to date, people would have been near-riot angry had Sufjan not played it. Naturally, he saved it for the end of the set, and everyone got out of their seats and sang along. It was a rendition virtually verbatim with the one that appeared on “Illinois”, but when you’ve got the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand going off script into an extended version of a classic song isn’t the best route to take. So with the two older songs sandwiched at the beginning and end of the set and everything else new in between, Sufjan Stevens and his band said goodnight…but not without an encore first.
As Sufjan came out by himself for the encire, he played the lovely but brief “Illinois” piano track “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”. That was another straight version, before he brought his two backup singers out to do “Decatur”. As an introduction to the song, Sufjan pretty much said, “I hate this song, it’s a real tongue-twister, but we’re here so we have to do it.” That turned out just fine too, as did “Casimir Pulaski Day” right after that, The really questionable move he made was to play “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” solo to end the night. As great as that song is, part of the also-great “Illinois” album and a historical legacy of the state, one can’t help but wonder if there was a better, less depressing serial killer-ish choice that could have been made before walking off the stage. Instead it was a somber end to a night that in an ideal world would have been far more upbeat.
If you haven’t noticed by now, this isn’t a rave review praising Sufjan Stevens for his musical brilliance both on and off the stage. The fact of the matter is, the guy is so prolific and talented that he’s raised the bar to a point beyond which even he can reach. The one thing he’s failed to realize in this tour so far is that while people are excited to hear your new stuff, they’re still more passionate about the old stuff. In some recent interviews, Sufjan made some comments about leaving the “cutesy” days behind and presenting a far more mature show than he ever has before. Back in 2005, touring for a few months after the release of “Illinois”, he had cheerleaders and wore a train engineer’s cap and played the banjo. It was such a joyous and happy experience – clearly one he has no intention of repeating anytime soon. As nice of a guy as Sufjan is, and as great as his music might be, he’s very much started to take on the temperament of the tortured genius. Whether it’s the enormous pressure he’s felt from all the critical acclaim and mainstream success he’s achieved thus far, or it’s simply a matter of burnout, the smile seems to have been erased from his face. There was nothing technically wrong with his show at the Chicago Theatre last Friday, everything sounded exactly as it should and the new stuff is pretty excellent as well. A set list where the majority of the songs are from “The Age of Adz” and the “All Delighted People” EP isn’t necessarily frowned upon, but at these early stages when the new material is still seeping into people’s brains, perhaps more of a balance would leave the crowds more satisfied. Then again these are the perils that come from being a relatively popular musician, the pressure to give in and “play the hits” rather than try something new. Sufjan Stevens gets credit for largely ignoring what could have been a very eclectic and satisfying set by challenging the audience with all this new music. That doesn’t give much excuse for the relative disdain for which he played songs from “Illinois” during the encore, but better to play them halfheartedly than not at all. Once “The Age of Adz” and its companion EP have been around long enough to earn some genuine sing-alongs, Sufjan’s live show will reach solid ground once again. At the moment though, he’s running far ahead of the pack and refusing to slow down with the hope that everyone else will catch up with him eventually. Let’s hope that’s sooner rather than later.
Age of Adz
Now That I’m Older
Get Real Get Right
The Owl and the Tanager
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!
Casimir Pulaski Day
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.