Review: Sufjan Stevens, Royal Festival Hall.

As stated prior to tonight’s penultimate number, Sufjan Stevens has been on “a long, horrible journey” since he was last here in London. Nonetheless, he’s not alone, for in much the same way that “we’re all gonna die” – as is later reiterated both desperately and nigh on indefinitely during a devastating take on Fourth of July – the past few years have inevitably taken their toll on oh, so many of us. Sure, relatively few (if any) of Stevens’ fellow souls will have written so wonderful a work as Carrie & Lowell in the interim; but that’s not to say that we’re thus incapable of relating to this overwhelmingly understated, and understatedly overwhelming masterpiece, nor that our heartaches, breaks and pains are in any way incomparable. I, for one, following on from some nasty diagnoses and debatably unnecessary prescriptions subsequent, suffered from a complete breakdown in communication with my mother; the family member to whom, hitherto, I had been closest to. It was only some while after its release last March that I came to relate Stevens’ remorseful latest to sorrows closer to home, coming to realise that, akin to the aforementioned lyric from Fourth of July, life is fleeting and so to take one of two people who gave it to me in the first instance away when I may, one day, rue said deterioration in the relationship seemed transparently ludicrous. (Incidentally, in her car, Carrie & Lowell has been lodged on the sort of loop to drive most people completely loopy for several months now, although these are revelations that have never previously been revealed…)

Of course, those events aforesaid don’t even so much as scratch the gravity of Stevens’ touching voyage into loss and love unrequited that, due to the death of his mother Carrie in 2012, can not – neither now, nor ever – be satisfied. Lost to the world and the weary condemned to continue to inhabit its cruelest of crusts, the prevalence of absence is painfully apparent this evening. However, when Carrie & Lowell was first released, given its unquestionable eminence, only one question remained: how would Stevens ever be able to bring himself to revisit the torture intrinsic to his chosen subject matter? Pain is one thing, but it’s this ‘one thing’ that is dramatically exacerbated by wallowing therein, or indeed by repeat visits thereto. His recontextualising said material tonight is therefore rather inevitable, or inextricable; indeed, in beginning with a dolorous, and decidedly cetacean take on Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou), slumped over an upright piano stage-left, he moans and groans his way through a track that is, both thematically and temporally, far removed from his stark, austere latest.

Among the most impactive pieces from his Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State suite, the sense of absence is absolute in spite of so full a sound, and so too so full a house. But it then begins; the descent into despair, the brittle Death with Dignity benefitting from a more comprehensive, all-embracive arrangement, replete with lap-steely despondency and mumbled, stumbling keys. But at its shushed epicentre is the spectral acoustic refrain that waltzes, like the last dance of a dearly departed, with Stevens’ forever-angelic vocal. Cynics may suggest that this is not at its best tonight, creaking and cracking frequently, although this only goes to show the profound depth of feeling to have been poured unsparingly into this particular release. This is Stevens exposing not just himself – what is at once a spartan light show focusses more or less solely on the songwriter now stood centre stage – but so too his soul, and impossible is nothing…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are those who bawl all the way through these few ephemeral minutes, their transitory nature rendered in starker relief still by a rendition of Should Have Known Better that is, admittedly, that bit too overdone at times. When it comes to the likes of Carrie & Lowell and the stylistically analogous Seven Swans – a comparison not merely based on sonic commonality, but so too representative of a reconnection to the God-fearing backdrop against which Stevens was raised; a return to his roots, and so too the ‘rootsiness’ of prior recordings, in search of answers, redemption, potential salvation, and so on – less is most certainly more, after all. And so, an Age of Adz-ed breakdown is somewhat unwelcome, as are rather ‘Disneyfied’ drum frills that are perhaps better suited to the Lyceum Theatre a skimmed stone’s throw across the Thames.

But “the beauty that she brings, illumination” he reminisces, lifting skinny fists like antennas to Heaven as a sci-fi light show abounds, but woefully fails to astound. More faithful a portrayal is therefore afforded the doting, gorgeously yearning All of Me Wants All of You, while Drawn to the Blood evidences – and does so explicitly – Stevens’ newfound fascination with the macabre. No longer contented with playing the angel, having shed the wings he wore throughout the Age of Adz tour, he is frequently reduced to nothing but a silhouette; a shadow of his former self, if you will. Again, a prog-rocky coda seems unnecessary, and rather obfuscates the potency of feeling, but increasingly, it seems as though such considerable rearrangement is merely his idiosyncratic way of retranslating the recordings’ original intimacy. Call it a coping strategy, defence mechanism or whatever you will, but it’s still difficult to begrudge Stevens, on the basis of his being here.

And there are, or perhaps rather there were – as suggested during the self-destructive, desolate The Only Thing – times at which life for Stevens proved a seemingly insurmountable struggle in itself. His gaze transfixed downwards – as is so often his wont this evening; not for need of invigilating the intricate fingerpicking which pans out throughout, but so as not to make concerted eye contact with his audience, it would appear – he plaintively divulges, “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm/ Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark” in a couplet that takes us to a grim reality far removed from UFOs and Christmas unicorns. It takes great courage to confront such personal trauma – not least in public – and while this sort of ‘way out’ is frequently perceived as a sign of some despicable, but still essentially debilitating weakness, Stevens has here turned this into a great strength. It’s one which is visibly summoned throughout; sometimes more obviously than at others: All of Me Wants All of You, for instance, hears primitive, digital beats prelude a scarcely recognisable, almost minimal techno intro, while Stevens performs a series of complex gesticulations. Again, it’s a case of recontextualisation that “change[s your] point of view,” but doesn’t necessarily do so in a detrimental manner. To reiterate, if when Carrie & Lowell was first released I wondered – and with that, worried – as to how he may be able to plumb the profundities of distress on a nightly basis, then if this is the means to that particular end, so be it: I’m sold; hook, line and sinker.

The more pared-down, deferential Eugene sees Stevens revert to tonalities distant from the synth wig-outs and Afrobeat-en thwacks of the preceding songs. And, perhaps ironically, it tonight proves redolent of Big Yellow Taxi, during which Joni Mitchell lamented, “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” – the ethos of the entire LP, given Stevens’ “desire to be with [Carrie], so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her.” Additionally, there is a quite incredible heft to the closing lyric, “What’s the point of singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?” as his human impotence, or the impossibility of bridging the divide which differentiates life from death, is embossed dismally.

The deathbed-bound Fourth of July is doused in incongruously kaleidoscopic polychromy, with this one more evocative of another festive number than an aestival festival triumph (Stevens headlines End of the Road this coming weekend, of course); it too is desecrated with a musically bruising denouement to detract from the contused quality of what is, on the record, one of its most chilling moments. Its impact eventually impacted upon by yet another tragically overwrought crescendo, the rueful The Only Thing first witnesses the return of a truly arresting fragility, the aforesaid self-destruction left in unequivocally visceral evidence. But intriguingly, it’s lyrics from the former – Fourth of July – that Stevens neglects to sing himself, relinquishing the responsibility that can surely belong only to he, as dawn Landes instead does the honours. Of course, recalling the final minutes of one’s mother’s life is not something that any one of us would want to do on a daily – or again, nightly – basis, but such is the poetic license involved with likening Carrie’s short-lived life to fireflies and Independence Day firework displays, that to renounce authorship (at least superficially) appears injudicious a decision. With Stevens’ vocal – when it does interject – dripping in dense reverb, fluttering orchestral flourishes hark back to The BQE and (the as yet, inexplicably unreleased soundtrack to) Round Up, thus analogising his most recent to certain previous releases, in order to ensure a greater onstage cohesion, one assumes. But ultimately, the building, slow-burning, but counterintuitive euphoria feels at odds with the prevailing lyric, “We’re all gonna die,” martial rhythms contributing to the overriding feeling of mortal futility; our wretched status as futile devices confirmed in no uncertain terms…

It’s wholly overwhelming once more, although the question persists: could he not have resisted the temptation to put on so (over?)produced a production? Certainly those intermittent times at which he does so seem to suggest he perhaps should have, for there is a deft, deathly serenity to No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross that strikes like a “stake through the centre of my heart,” or a tamping iron through poor ol’ Phineas Gage’s encephalon. “Fuck me, I’m falling apart” Stevens concedes, his mental (and here, so too physical) deterioration clear for all to see, perceive and so on, his hands covering his face as the lights at last fade. If we can therefore question the cathartic qualities to his revisiting these songs night after night, then that which addresses whether or not he has, as yet, achieved even so much as a nebulous semblance of closure seemingly has its answer in this one gesture.

Overtly contrastive once more, the jaunty title track reeks of optimism purloined from the pains of the past; a (re)capturing of positivity from a degenerative, negative spiral of events. Lyrics concerning “season[s] of hope” line a lighter, biographical recollection of Carrie and Lowell’s relationship, as well as that of they – both individually and collectively – with he. Backed by a blanched VHS bricolage, it makes for a remarkable change in tone tonight, celebratory undertones – so often present within bittersweet, posthumously composed memoirs – breaking with the overtonal agonies of a gingerly reshuffled pack, or [set/track]list. Another synth odyssey then ensues, which is probably not all that surprising – if not quite 2001, there are rather more than anticipated…

But Stevens is himself a whimsical creature of contrast: his nimbleness of touch is articulated by the tiny nerves, synapses and sinews in the brawniest of bodies, dressed in a tee that reads ‘Hustler Since Seventy-Four’; his stilted emotional development has given rise to a sense of expression – not to mention an eloquence – that conveys what so many fail, or feel unable to say, without needing to necessarily do so explicitly. Stevens, an incontrovertible master of his craft, therefore trades in purified feelings as much as he does thought-provoking songs, and none are more pure, nor provocative than Blue Bucket of Gold: re-rendered as a resplendent drone opus, it provides the one, and possibly only moment at which the original recording and the live representation thereof are perfectly calibrated with one another, and wondrously aligned. Something “to extol” to the hilt, with its silvery riffs and enormous choruses, glitchy ticks (think Tor’s Illinoize) morph into thunderous, stadium-demolishing thumps, before darkness descends, two slowly revolving disco balls appear overhead, and the vast organ at the back of the venue is duly illuminated. Sat at its keys and cogs is Stevens’ “good friend” Nico Muhly, who, prior thereto, has gone more or less entirely unnoticed, due to the gravity – said in every sense of the word – to Carrie & Lowell. It’s an unexpected, yet excellent, and eminently welcome expansion, the all-consumingly guttural thrum of Muhly’s involvement from on high lending itself superbly to sensations of celestiality and, perhaps more aptly, ascension. It’s an instance that could scarcely be any more different from Death with Dignity, and yet there is this sense that both slot onto (albeit opposing ends of) a spectrum of spectacularity.

Having looked at turns and times both hopeless and lost, Stevens is visibly battered at the end of ninety minutes’ transcendence, during which he’s said not one word. Not one lone word. “I’ve got nothing to prove” he sang, more or less as the show began; but tonight serves as proof enough, in and of itself, that Stevens has now become one of, if not the very best (if not singer, then most certainly) songwriter of his generation. And an all the more jocular encore corroborates this belief: with his signature trucker cap having been tucked into his back pocket for the duration, he now dons it to indulge in a sort of ‘greater hits’ set littered with gags and gaffes, the gift of the gab well and truly back as he thanks this most “courte[ous]” audience profusely. He’ll josh about British driving tests, and our “fundamental” desire not to “dazzle other drivers,” when not celebrating our “pass[ing] through the vortex, and surviv[ing the voyage].” There is thus requisite levity to this segment of the show, and a more sure-footed performance duly ensues. But it feels strangely like a listless afterlife, and is eerily unrewarding by comparison; and that, in spite of its comprising some of Stevens’ very finest oeuvres. From Seven Swans, the leaden To Be Alone With You and the lithe The Dress Looks Nice on You take flight, the latter of course hearing Stevens’ constant stating, and subsequent recapitulating, “I can see a lot of life in you.” This thus feels like the light – or perhaps rather life? – at the end of the figurative tunnel, with light relief provided by a guileful, slide-led rendition of Chicago (its umpteenth permutation) which serves as the joyous conclusion to the arduous “journey.” But whatever fate should now befall Sufjan, or indeed any one of us, Carrie can now rest peacefully in the knowledge that she bestowed upon the world one of its mightiest penmen.