Death is the elephant in the room of our lives. It’s one of the few universal inevitabilities we all face in our world, and yet we pretend it doesn’t exist and choose to ignore its impact until we’re directly faced with it. The thought of death, of losing our loved ones, or even ourselves, can paralyze us if we let it overcome us.
Sufjan Stevens confronts death directly on his new album, Carrie & Lowell, named for his mother and stepfather. Stevens’ mother passed away recently, and this new 11-song album is an auditory documentation of processing his loss and grief, as well. The result is a devastating, meditative, but ultimately hopeful understanding of death. It is Stevens’ most personal & introspective album to date; it is also among his very best work.
Carrie & Lowell is a more sparse effort than most anything prior in Stevens’ recent discography, trading in bombastic arrangements for more minimalist acoustic production. The “return-to-indie/folk” sound occasionally recalls the fingerpicked guitar and double-tracked vocals of the late Elliott Smith. Subtle orchestration and warm synthesizers round out the sound, resulting in the most intimate and serious sounding work for Sufjan Stevens’ career.
How would all of this translate to the stage, specifically the grandiose Merrill Auditorium? Flawlessly. Stevens presented a 5-piece ensemble that brought new life to the understated arrangements of his new record, while still retaining the essence of the album’s fragility. Merrill commands more of a “performance” vibe than that of a typical “concert,” thus rendering the crowd completely silent during and after each song. The lush acoustics of the theatre were absolutely perfect for both Stevens’ songs and the meditative aura of the evening. (side note – WHY aren’t there more concerts at Merrill Auditorium? This is the Carnegie Hall of Portland. The atmosphere and acoustics are matchless. It might be more expensive to put on a concert at Merrill, but the end result is worth every single penny. I really hope Merrill Auditorium hosts more events like this on a regular basis.)
Stevens switched between piano and 12-string guitar, with the occasional synth flourish. To hear his distinct voice fill a theatre in person was beyond what words can convey. His studio recordings are often crafted to perfection, so the live performance offered a nice contrast. The live arrangements were on-point, but now there were tinges of the human behind the songs taking center stage.
After opening with “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” from his Michigan album, Stevens & Co. performed the new album in its entirety. The first line of “Death With Dignity” sums up his new album in a nutshell: “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you/But I’m afraid to be near you.” “Should Have Known Better” is an instant Sufjan classic, one of the catchiest songs in his catalog. “Fourth of July” stood out in the middle of the set, with the repeating stark revelation that “we’re all gonna die.”
Shortly after this song, Sufjan spoke to the audience for the first time in the show. He openly spoke about how he’s been thinking about death and how to cope with it, and specifically wondering what happens to all of the energy that we put into our lives (and into other people) once they die. Where does the energy go? Sufjan surmised that that energy is passed down, that each one of us is living with the energy of our loved ones, and that we continue to pass it on. The crowd, both bewildered and inspired, let a moment pass before erupting in applause. One can only assume that presenting these songs to the public is as much a struggle as it is cathartic for the mourning musician.
Towards the end of the set, Sufjan spoke again and thanked the crowd for their patience with new material, and then indulged the fans looking for selections from his older albums. These songs took on a fuller, slightly psychedelic feel that evoked the more serious moments of The Flaming Lips’ symphonic sound, though “The Owl and the Tanager” from the All Delighted People EP was a real highlight, with Stevens alone at the piano, his falsetto wails bouncing off the theatre’s ceiling and fading away into the darkness. The encore, which stretched 5 songs, featured three from Sufjan’s esteemed Illinois album: “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” and the rousing closer “Chicago.” At 21 songs, it was the longest show of Stevens’ tour thus far.
Cold Specks opened the show, with an impressive set that conjured a combination of Southern gospel soul and the moody mid-tempo sound of Radiohead, with a dash of PJ Harvey influence to boot.
Check out the full photo gallery (by Jeff Beam and Hannah Hays) and another video from the show below: