sufjan stevens [2010]

Paramount Theatre
Oakland, CA
26 October 2010

The writing was on the wall. I should not have been surprised. You finally get tickets to see one of your favorite artists, who you’ve somehow never seen live.

And then, weeks before the show, the artist releases his new album. Not your favorite. Certainly a departure from his soft spoken, folky singer/songwriter history. You’re still excited about the show, of course, but there’s no denying that trepidation has crept in.

I love Sufjan Stevens. I love his passion. I love his instrumentation, his lyrics, his sincerity, his prolific nature. But, just as it seems with most artists I love, it turns out I love a fairly specific Sufjan Stevens.

The Stevens who has, over the past couple of years, embarked on what he describes as “an adventure of sound exploration”, I’m not so sure about. A 40 minute ode to a freeway (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or BQE). Fascinating that he would choose such a project, but the fascination wore off for me around minute number seven.

And then there’s the new album: The Age of Adz. It is full of bombast and theatrics. It is untamed energy. It is an exploration of space and self. It is not necessarily for me.

Tuesday night at Oakland’s Paramount Theater, Stevens was given an opportunity to present Age of Adz in a grand, spectacular setting. He did not neglect this opportunity.

There were bright, festive lights and costumes. There was a steady stream of projected images, also bright and festive, above the stage. There were at least ten musicians, playing guitars, keyboards, horns and various and sundry percussion instruments. There were dancers. I’m not kidding.

There were dancers at a Sufjan Stevens show. Now, granted, they were backup vocalists who apparently threw together a few routines, but they were dancers nonetheless. It was all quite a spectacle.

The projected images (along with the cover art for Adz), Stevens eventually explained, were primarily taken from the work of an artist he’s admired for some time, Louisiana’s Royal Robertson. At one point during the show, Stevens launched into a meandering tale of Robertson’s odd life (love of spaceships and cartoonish colors; government conspiracy paranoia) and how it has recently influenced him in his personal life and in the making of Adz.

It soon became clear that Steven’s explanation of this journey had become a journey unto itself. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but though I appreciated the sharing of his recent soul searching, at a certain point, I began to experience BQE flashbacks. He didn’t have to say it, but Stevens came right out and made it clear: this “sound exploration” of his, was probably not what folks expected of a singer/songwriter.

Stevens and his band eventually performed what seemed like the entirety of Adz. Don’t get me wrong – I actually love two songs from the album: “I Walked” and “Vesuvius”, and they were fantastic live. And Stevens closed with perhaps my all-time favorite song of his: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” from Illinois, and it was absolutely sublime. Almost made everything OK.

But after the glow subsided, I realized that the show was just a wild circus of sound and movement. Like the songs on the album, there was very little structure. If there was an anchor, I could not see or feel it.

Maybe this is his new direction and I’m just not meant to follow. Maybe I’m just an old man set in his ways, not willing to join him on this particular journey. Maybe Robertson is the only one with the answers. And he died in 1997, alone with his paranoid schizophrenia.