The Academy of Music was abuzz as the lights of a tree-sized chandelier dimmed. “I’m sorry in advance,” warned a second-wind teenie-bopper of the 90’s seated next to me, “I’m probably going to scream when I see him.” In a matter of seconds the stage became full as over a dozen people aligned themselves to form a mirrored arc of drum sets, winds, keyboards, guitars, and glittered dancers. At its nucleus stood Sufjan Stevens, stationed with a battery of guitars, microphones, and the Prophet ’08, an analog synthesizer that perched aptly atop an altar to his right.
The Age of Adz / Sufjan Stevens from The Age of Adz [Asthmatic Kitty, 2010]
At this point, Sufjan Stevens is no stranger to Little Brother – having appeared on both the piano and funk mixes – although I have never explicitly stated his importance. To me Stevens is an interesting – if not remarkable – figure who has done for the long-playing album something like what Wagner did for the opera or Mahler for the symphony – working with large musical forms in a way that compels a listener to acquaint their ears over a considerable amount of time to a living, breathing sound world.
Previously drawing from physical, tangible worlds in his United States inspired albums Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005) and his more recent symphonic suite ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (The BQE, 2009), Stevens has most recently taken a cue from immaterial landscapes. His latest opus The Age of Adz (2010) reflects the imagined universes in the work of late Louisiana folk artist Royal Robertson whose drawings – like the one below – represent some kind of apocalyptic future dimension, images from which the self-deemed Prophet saw by visions from God.
In a venue markedly more fitting for Il Trovatore than Illinois, the event regardless represented an operatic approach to Stevens’ land of Adz, complimenting an extensive sonic universe with an equally invested display of visual elements: lighting, movement, quirky costuming, and a synchronized video accompaniment of chopped dance footage, formations and dissolutions of white dots like a two-dimensional snow globe (see top), and collage animations of Royal Robertson’s work. With all musicians together on stage, as it was for the elaborately scored Adz title track, the theater teemed to the combination of diabolic Lost-esque swells, silver jump suits smattered with neon glow-in-the-dark tape, and all forms of epileptic movement.
As the show went on Stevens described the struggle he’d had with his recent work claiming that he had spent several months holed up in his studio marveling at the possibilities of sounds and began to go crazy. He likened this to Robertson, who became immersed in his imaginary worlds to the extent that it destroyed his sense of place within his real world. For Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic, this obsession ultimately obliterated his home life when his wife and 11 children deserted him. For two decades he lived in recluse until his death in 1997.
If each studio album venture for Stevens represents a click of the zoom button on Google Maps, The Age of Adz has effectively focused his trajectory from a broad state-wide level all the way to his two feet on the ground. In suit, Stevens described a new approach to making music, “I wanted to do away with settings, characters, narrative” he spoke between songs, “Adz was about having a primal connection with the sound.”
“Impossible Soul,” the 25-minute closer to Adz and self- described ‘dissertation’ marks Stevens’ most exhaustive approach yet, and a true symbol of his obsessive genius. When the collective embarked on the work towards the end of the concert I sensed a memory ahead of me. Set off with a simple piano chord, the work grew and grew to reach an overjoyed celebration. And when beach balls were hurled from the stage the crowd erupted, rising from their seats and dancing in the aisles in some sort of mutual culture shock between the venue and its guests.
We roared as he made his way into his coda, which left Stevens now unaccompanied. The stage went from black to sobering white, the video cut out, and his musicians froze. But as our applause subsided he broke and paused. The tragic hero, crippled by a long song after a long set after a long tour, fell. He put his hands over his face, removed some of the neon strips taped to his forehead, and collected his thoughts. And in a moment most inspiring, the music became so much that it revealed what Stevens really is – human.
Photo courtesy of my friend Nate’s blog.
For complete setlist and videos: The Swollen Fox
For additional photos: Phrequency