Review: Sufjan Stevens and Carrie & Lowell

Last Monday, I went to see Sufjan Stevens. It was an experience. We saw him at the historic Wang Theater, which was the ideal environment. It’s a gorgeous concert hall, all lovely carvings and gilded chandeliers. It seemed so appropriate for what he was playing. This was not a show to hoot and holler at. This was a respectful observation of a master at work. Neil, Mike, and I were up in the cheap seats, but I didn’t  much mind being in the balcony (the theater has a really excellent ceiling). That high up, I felt like I could absorb the performance as a whole.

It’s hard to describe the experience of seeing him live. It was like living inside his music. It would rise and swell in such a way that it felt like I was absorbing the notes straight into my pores and the music was just becoming a part of my bloodstream. It was a very intense concert going experience. There was very little audience participation. From what I could tell, no one was singing (unless you count me mouthing the words quietly to myself). For the most part, we all sat in a hush, spellbound and hypnotized by what was happening on stage, pausing only to clap and scream wildly in approval. For most of the show, I could scarcely breathe. My eyes kept welling with tears. Everything was just so incredibly moving; the music was so amazing and genuine. It touched my soul. I don’t know how else to describe it. Also, the use of light and projection was fantastic. I felt like I was in another world. It was one of the most intimate concerts I have ever attended.

I was particularly excited because this tour focuses on his extraordinary new album Carrie & Lowell. How to describe this record: it’s like a secret. It is one of the most honest and deeply personal listening experiences I have ever had. It’s very stripped down, just Sufjan’s voice accompanied by acoustic guitar or piano. Every single track feels like a confession. The album, named for Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, grapples with ideas of life, death, grief, and mortality, sadness and sweetness, fondness of memory, nostalgia, and a bittersweet regret. Every track is sweet and lovely to listen to, but the lyrics reveal a darker current underneath that renders the songs beautifully haunting. Sufjan’s voice is everything on this album since there’s nothing to distract from it, nothing to compete with his breathy, beautiful melodies. I realize I am fangirling hard right now, but I melt in the presence of his greatness: his voice, his songwriting talent, his ability to arrange so simply and yet so meaningfully. Listening to this album is an enchanting and harrowing experience that I just want to have over and over again. Please excuse the ecstatic weeping.

For the first forty minutes of the concert, Sufjan just played the new album. He did not speak a word. He did not say anything to the audience. He and his band just played. They played and played and played and it was unnerving and wonderful and so emotional. It was absolutely one of the most electric and outstanding performances I have ever seen.

Then he broke the silence. He thanked us. He spoke about about life and death and the way death inhabits us all, getting carried around and in each of us. He talked about his grandmother haunting his family’s house. And then he played more. He ended the set with “Blue Bucket of Gold” and I felt like the music was tangible. I wasn’t just hearing it, but it was surrounding me, like a warm caress. The encore was also excellent. He ended with Chicago, as seemed appropriate, but oddly jarring with the somber tone of the evening. I was still glad to hear it. Every song that night was so full and high energy. It was great to hear the live arrangements. My heart was very full afterwards.

If, for some reason, you have not yet listened to Carrie & Lowell, do you yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this emotional rollercoaster of awesome. You will not regret it. Also, if you ever get the chance to see Sufjan Stevens live, for the love of God, take that opportunity. Run, don’t walk.

Until next time!


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