Sufjan Stevens: Grief & Redemption
As a teenager, the artistic process saved my life. Had it not been for my obsession with writing poetry, fiction, and songs, I don’t think that I’d have reached the age of eighteen. I’ve known many artists who have expressed similar thoughts. The creative process becomes a sanctuary, a refuge from the alien world; even more, a crucible in which trauma and disempowerment can be transformed into energized and life-affirming expression. Years ago I was leading a writing workshop in a prison. I still recall one of the inmates saying, “Art to me is when you take all the trash of your life and turn it into something beautiful.”
I was pondering these and other related matters throughout the November 4 Sufjan Stevens show at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, NC. Stevens has embraced a range of styles in his seven studio CDs, adopting the roles of truth-telling minstrel, tortured bard, and digital shaman, among others, often hybridizing acoustic instrumentation and electronic sounds worthy of an Ecstasy rave, perhaps most consummately in 2010’s The Age of Adz. Regardless of his approach, Stevens consistently utilizes his medium to transform psychic wounds into sonic sculptures, poetic lyrics, and wafting melodies that haunt long after a song is over. His latest release, Carrie and Lowell, marks a return to a minimal approach, similar to that explored in his early work and 2004’s Seven Swans; however, as structurally simple as these songs may be, they’re as thematically rich and tonally complex as anything Stevens has released, centering on his early family experiences, specifically his relationship with his mother, who suffered from mental illness, abandoned the family several times while Stevens was young, and died in 2012—triggering a crisis for Stevens and inspiring the eleven songs on this CD.
I was curious how Stevens would present the Carrie and Lowell tracks on stage, whether he would “dumb down” the intricate textures of these pieces, perhaps emphasizing beat, upping the distorted guitars, and accelerating tempo. From the opening song, however, it was evident that Stevens and his exceptional band were committed to the integrity of these pieces, their hypnotic moods and delicate melodies; the added musical layering, rather than eclipsing, complemented and further illuminated the elegance and stark intensity of Stevens’ lyrics and melodies, careful and nuanced orchestrations heightening the thematic and tonal complexity of the material. Also, the projection of family photos and video clips in the background rendered the confessional nature of this music that much more palpable. The audience seemed transfixed during such songs as “Should Have Known Better,” vivid lyrics personalized by images of family activities from Stevens’ childhood: his mother cooking, Stevens in a highchair eating, various relatives milling around a car:
I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy
And the unforgettable:
When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store
Oh, be my rest, be my fantasy
Oh, be my rest, be my fantasy
It’s interesting that as many times as I’ve listened to Carrie and Lowell, I didn’t connect Stevens’ lifelong struggle (with the absence, life arc, and death of his mother) to my own experiences. At one point during the November 4 show, however, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like flashbacks, recollections of my own mother’s death when I was five surging through my mind, odd sensations throbbing in my gut and limbs. I reflected how I too have spent many years, off and on, plumbing the mystery of my mother’s absence, how I was the one who was present with her while she died, who helped her call an ambulance, how I later witnessed her motionless body covered by a white sheet, paramedics whispering to my father in the next room. I was reminded of a prose poem I wrote a few years ago:
My mother is stammering in a language I have yet to learn, tumors gnawing through her pink flesh; my father has passed out, eyes glued shut with gin and hard barbiturates. I pound on his granite body until my fists are purple. My mother is on her knees like a supplicant, lost in her coda of dying, as my father’s snores crescendo. Then, silence, darkness. When the image returns, as if someone has performed a splice, my mother’s body is covered with a sheet and my father is asking a paramedic for a cigarette. I’ve been trying for years to find that missing piece of film, but these canisters of memory are empty, and the search just goes on and on and on.
The contribution of Stevens’ band can’t be overemphasized; each musician, whether adding acoustic or electric guitar, bass, percussion, trombone, or synths, demonstrating a clear attunement to the spirit of the material. The instrumental segments on “Firefly” ranged from subtle and sparse melodies to pressing walls of volume, the tonal essence of the original never compromised. Two and three-part vocal harmonies were breathtaking. “All of Me Wants All of You” displayed an innovative use of electronics and drum beats, transforming the original and more barebones folk version into a driving and danceable take, again the fundamental intent of the song never obfuscated, but rather highlighted, amplified, evocatively framed. Towards the end of the show, Stevens and his band performed a memorable crescendo, a swelling and shrinking palimpsest of sounds; multicolored lights throbbing, sweeping, flashing, and blinking with the music. My wife said, “That reminded me of being in a war-torn country or what it might be like when dying.” I replied, “Yeah, or being born; one of those major transitions.” “It was bardo music,” she said. Indeed.
The encore was less choreographed and quite casual in comparison to the theatric and ordered nature of the previous offering. Stevens pattered a bit between pieces, cracking jokes about the “depressing” quality of his songs. The night ended with Stevens summoning Gallant (the opener, whom, unfortunately, we missed) onto the stage, at which point they performed parts of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” an odd pick I thought but perhaps an entertaining way to finish. I would have preferred for Stevens to conclude the show in a fashion that preserved the mood he and his band so skillfully conjured and stoked throughout the evening, rather than dissipating it with ongoing jests and a questionable cover song, but I understand that someone in Stevens’ position has to navigate what he perceives as audience expectations.
My wife and I agreed that this was one of the more memorable shows we’ve attended this year. In addition, this performance seems to have brought about for me an important insight regarding some patterns that have plagued me since I was a boy. Come to think of it, I may even call my therapist and schedule an appointment. Haha, a positive review is one thing but an artist prompting you to resume therapy…if that’s not evidence of a strong impact, I don’t know what is.