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.

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