For most people here, this isn’t the first time they’ve seen the enigma that is Sufjan Stevens; some – like myself – experienced his soul-crushing live show last year at the Sydney Opera House, others are seasoned veterans, having joined the Sufjan train many moons ago upon his release of highly acclaimed album Seven Swans. Regardless of how long we had been apart of this fan club, most can attest that there is something uniquely ethereal about Sufjan Stevens.
We were gifted with two sides to Sufjan tonight – in the first part of the set, he delivered Carrie & Lowell in its entirety, filling the room with emotion as he recounted his relationship with his parents. He began with a delicate and stripped back “Death With Dignity”, a sentiment that continued onto “Should Have Known Better”. By halfway through this song, the band was kicked into action, taking advantage of the State Theatre acoustics to its fullest.
Accompanied by an astounding light display and an electronic keyboard, Sufjan deconstructed classics like “All Of Me Wants All Of You”, providing powerful and contemporary takes on soft and intimate numbers. During “Fourth Of July”, the room went pitch black, only illuminated by the repetition of the words ‘we’re all gonna die’, transcending him from a great musician, to the silhouette of a powerful and omnipotent deity. As the final chords of “Blue Bucket of Gold” rung throughout the State Theatre, audiences were brought to a standing ovation. But that wasn’t the end of the night by any mark.
“Instead of playing new songs about death, here’s some old songs about death”, he joyfully said as he came back onto the stage, to the audiences eternal delight. A definitive change in mood occurred here – although the songs still carry the same themes, the separation from new and old is marked most obviously in his change of demeanour. He became more chatty, busting self-deprecating jokes about the sad nature of his music.
Stripping back the extravagance of the Carrie & Lowell set, this exploration back into his roots is more intimate and personal, as if we’re all just sitting in a really large lounge room as he plays to us as friends. The songs are still quintessentially sad Sufjan – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, about a serial killer who dressed as a clown and murdered young boys, and “Casimir Pulaski Day”, which recalls the death of a friend to cancer when he was younger – but as Sufjan and his four band members crowd around a single microphone, it makes for a really poignant experience.
In fact, I was fighting back tears a majority of this set, so overwhelmed by the way in which Sufjan captures the nature of the world we live in. Even though he’s transcended being known for only one song, Sufjan still finished the night with “Chicago”, albeit a simplified version that was on one of his demos. This change fit perfectly with the rest of the show – his aim was to make us feel, and boy, we felt all the feels.