Serial Killers, Serious Shift And Sufjan Stevens

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 - by Luke Lillard

After three hours with a Knoxville auditorium full of fans who were practically worshiping him, Sufjan Stevens closed with the gentle reminder (in the lyrics of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”, from 2005’s “Illinois”) that he is no better than a serial killer.

Over the last decade, Stevens has developed a devoted fan base due to a quirky public persona and a unique style incorporating an eclectic blend of instruments. However, most of his current followers, myself included, are much less familiar with the electronica of 2002’s “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” which makes his most recent LP “The Age of Adz” (released in October 2010) all the more startling.

It seems that in the five years since “Illinois,” in which Stevens has not released a full-length album, he has decided to take his music in an entirely different direction. As Pitchfork Media reviewer Ian Cohen put it in his review of Stevens’ “All Delighted People EP” (August 2010), “we may ultimately have to retire the idea of Sufjan Stevens as a banjo-toting cartographer of the heart and the continental United States.” It remains to be seen whether “The Age of Adz,” in all its electronic, dissonant and disturbing beauty, is in fact a sign that Stevens has diverted course or simply a temporary respite from the folk-based orchestral romps of “Illinois,” “Michigan” (2003) and “Seven Swans” (2004).

In any case, Stevens’ show in Knoxville on Friday night could very easily be described as a choreographed, frenetic mess. He opened with a rendition of “Seven Swans” before changing clothes onstage (yes, he was wearing gym shorts under those jeans). He donned what can only be described as part of a spacesuit, shiny and silver, and complete with a blinking neon visor. Declaring his outfit ready, Stevens launched into the primary part of his show, largely composed of songs from his new album.

The rest of the concert can only be accurately depicted with images, partly because the conceptual underpinings of “The Age of Adz” are far less defined than on any of Stevens’ previous albums, but primarily because it was an incredible, confusing spectacle.

Consider, for instance, the artwork of the late Royal Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic from Louisiana who declared himself a prophet, which featured prominently in the videos projected on the screen behind Stevens. Stevens explained that Robertson’s drawings contributed a great deal to the development of “The Age of Adz”; he apparently found in Robertson something of a kindred spirit.

Or consider the female dancer-vocalists, dressed in what can only be described as spacesuit-inspired leotards and tights (Stevens regularly referenced his affinity for outer space). The choreographed dances and strong vocal work of these two were a highlight of the show---especially when Stevens himself joined them during the latter half of the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.”

Or consider the two full drum kits, seated perpendicular to the audience and in front of every other musician except for Stevens himself. The proliferation of noise onstage must have been deafening; in the crowd it was delightful.

Or consider that Stevens filled out his ensemble with two trombone players, an organist, a pianist, a bassist and a lead guitarist---and all of them sang.

When the ensemble finally reached the conclusion of “Impossible Soul,” which included a long dance number in which no audience member remained in his or her seat, Stevens received a standing ovation. He grinned and rewarded his fans with what he knew we wanted: a song from his past.

When he hit the first note of “Chicago” (appropriately from
“Illinois”), the audience exploded into cheers, and when he reached the impossibly catchy chorus, we sang along.

After the curtain closed, we began our lengthy and loud request for an encore, and he rewarded us with acoustic renditions of two of his most beloved songs. The trombone players found themselves in the balcony, raining hopeful fanfares down to balance the sorrow of “Casimir Pulaski Day” (from “Illinois”), and the banjo player matched every note of Stevens’ guitar on “The Dress Looks Nice on You” (from “Seven Swans”).

Finally, Stevens dismissed the other musicians backstage, leaving himself alone to detail the exploits of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and acknowledge in no uncertain terms that he, a music icon and the star of this and many shows, was no better. It was a beautiful, poignant moment, and he said not a word when he had reached its conclusion.

In the end, it did not matter whether “The Age of Adz” is the first indication of a lasting musical shift. It did not matter whether there were a dozen musicians onstage. What mattered was one man’s confession of guilt, in the presence of many---and we all cheered wildly.



Weekly Road Construction Report

Here is the weekly road construction report for Hamilton County: I-24 East bridge repair over Chestnut Street at mile marker 178.6 near the U.S. 27 interchange and safety improvements on the bridges over the CSX Railroad and over U.S. 27:  Work on this project continues.  This project will repair the bridge on I 24 East over Chestnut Street at mile marker 178.6 near ... (click for more)

Dance Into Fall Contra Is Saturday

Chattanooga Traditional Dance Society presents Dance into Fall Contra! on Saturday from 7:30-11 p.m., featuring calling by Grant Yost and music by Ed and Elsie.  CTDS dances take place at Brainerd United Methodist Church, Lundy Hall, 4315 Brainerd Road. Admission is $8 and $5 for students and seniors.  Everyone is invited to join the family-friendly event and enjoy ... (click for more)

Jury Hears About Incident Behind Food Lion That Authorities Say Led To Triple Murders In Lookout Valley

A Criminal Court jury on Thursday was told about an incident behind the Food Lion on Brown's Ferry Road that authorities say was the motive for an April 9, 2014, massacre at a Lookout Valley trailer park. Brandon Jackson said the incident five days earlier involved Derek Morse, who is standing trial on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree ... (click for more)

Firefighters Battle 2-Alarm Apartment Building Fire

More than a dozen people were forced from their homes early Thursday morning when fire broke out in their apartment building.   The Chattanooga Fire Department received the alarm at  2:58 a.m.  and responded to Rainbow Creek Apartments at  7604 Standifer Gap Road  with six fire companies. Seeing a significant amount of fire upon arrival, a ... (click for more)

September Is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

The calendar fills up quickly in September as families return to a packed routine after quieter summer days. Unfortunately, your health might take a backseat to your busy schedule. So make a note on your calendar that September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and remind yourself—or the men in your life—about the importance of a healthy prostate.   Prostate cancer is ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: McQueen & Her TVAAS

If I am reading my Ouija Board right, I suspect the Hamilton County School Board will vote to allow a controversial “partnership” to be formed with the state Board of Education tonight at its monthly meeting. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has said she will demand the one-sided partnership to take over the operation of five at-risk schools in Hamilton County and, if ... (click for more)