Published on Fearless and Loathing.
It was April and raining, and I was alone in the third row of Cleveland’s cavernous Masonic Auditorium. Well, not exactly alone. It seemed like half of Oberlin was there, but I wasn’t sitting next to any of them. I hadn’t managed to find a ticket-buying buddy back in January when they went on sale, so there I was, third row and alone but not alone, hoping Sufjan Stevens would include me in some transcendent constellation of humanity.
I thought he might be going for the plain and simple feel of his new album Carrie & Lowell, which has been widely praised for its bare-bones instrumentation, gutting and personal lyrics, and intimacy. However, no matter how hard I tried to find it, there was little of that intimacy between myself and the people on stage in the elaborately choreographed, cued, and layered spectacle. So much for third row.
Stevens himself shattered cliché with his songwriting, spinning faded images from a spattering of words in a soft, slightly off-key but evocative falsetto croon. Hissing synthesizer and rumbling bass added a new dimension to some songs that on the album were fragile guitar skeletons, such as “All Of Me Wants All Of You” and “Should Have Known Better.” Long, tall video screens shaped like church windows displayed pastel projections and grainy home movies of Stevens’s childhood behind the musicians.
“Drawn to the Blood” lost none of its emotional punch with the addition of more volume, more texture, and a vaguely detuned piano welling up under the finale, rolling like sweet bells jangled. “Carrie & Lowell,” in its tenuous but lush optimism, sounded more like “Chicago” than the bright, blocky rendition of “Chicago” he played later. The energetic treatment jarred sometimes, as in “Fourth of July.” When sung over rollicking drums and full electric guitar power, the mantra of “We’re all gonna die” sounded too blasé.
“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” followed “Fourth of July,” with just Stevens and band member Dawn Landis on stage standing behind microphones, and I’m glad they did nothing to that. Sweet and straightforward, it found the loose thread in the audience and pulled it until most of us were falling apart.
After playing most of Carrie & Lowell out of order, he took a detour through some older cuts. “The Owl and the Tanager,” hypnotic and dark in piano and solo voice for its first minutes, flew into a wash of cymbals which came on, raged and rattled, and died down as quickly as a summer storm. Some of his Seven Swans selections, like “In the Devil’s Territory” and “Sister,” might have been more on target with a little less bombast.
More worrisome was “Blue Bucket of Gold.” It closes the album with a deep but soft howl of guitar and strings that in the live show was a high-octane, burning and flashing vortex of pounding drums and screaming instruments. The wall of video screens blinked on and off in lurid color and blinding white while mirrored balls sent little pops of light into my eyes so quickly that I had to shut them for the rest of the song. I hope no one in the audience was prone to seizures.
After a hauntingly reverberating “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and an overstuffed “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” the show ended with “Chicago.” I got up and joined the small crowd of Obies dancing and singing “All things go, all things go,” at the back of the floor level, and found more connection than I could have imagined — albeit with the other people experiencing it with me, not with the man on stage, who may as well have been behind glass.
I walked out feeling cheated and angry at myself for feeling cheated. Everything had gone right: the visuals had been beautiful, his banter about dead skin cells was poignant; his wispy voice should have been able to shine through the haze for more than a few brief moments. Yet I was left cold. How did this happen? I’m still trying to figure it out, and wondering if I was the only one in the audience who felt that way.
Those seeking a more personal experience would do well to check out opener Cold Specks, Somali-Canadian doom soul songstress Ladan Hussein. She softly twisted back and forth behind her mic, darkly musing in a seething alto about decapitating her lover in his sleep on top of booming drums and clean, cold guitar. She slid out from behind her mic to sing a cappella, working the protest chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot, I can’t breathe” into the end of her final song. The audience was almost entirely united in silence, leaning forward to pick up on every word. Hers is the kind of voice that could shout from the rafters, but you’d think it was singing to you and you alone.