Sufjan Stevens was a man of few words during his set at the Academy of Music April 10. He spoke to the crowd about an hour into the performance and his message was clear.
“Death is manifested in as many ways as life in the world.”
Apt, considering his newest record is a triumphant and haunting example of that exact manifestation. Written following his estranged mother’s passing, the album is deep, depressing and Sufjan Stevens at his best. Where his previous albums — masterpieces of their own — often swayed between blossoming conceptual pieces and powerful introspection, “Carrie & Lowell” is a canvas for self-exploration and grieving.
At times a harrowing unique glimpse into the prominence of death in life, at others, a sentimental adventure into Stevens’ past, “Carrie & Lowell” curates an incredible intimacy as Stevens whisper-sings the songs. He’s broken on this album, filled with intense regret for missing out on knowing his bipolar mother and filled with a depression that has followed him since she left him as a young child.
The album can be taken as the therapeutic release of grief by one of the most talented musicians in the industry, but it functions as much more than that. It’s an investigation of the way that death leaves its mark on a family and the ways people try to escape the suffocating notion that life isn’t fleeting.
In “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens beautifully captures and expresses feelings that are often difficult to capture following a tragedy.
The most successful song on the entire album was “The Only Thing.” Stevens addresses his suicidal tendencies following his mother’s death in the form of a desire to drive his car into a canyon or to cut his wrists in a Holiday Inn. Both instances are followed by Stevens asking himself, “Do I care if I survive this?”
The most powerful line on the entire album comes shortly after this, when he’s speaking directly to the spirit of his mother and asks, “Should I tear my arms out now, I want to feel your touch.”
It appears that Sufjan wanted to put the audience in the dark place he curated on “Carrie,” as he didn’t speak to the crowd until he had finished playing almost the entire album.
He came out onto a dark stage and played “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)” from his 2003 album “Michigan,” a simple instrumental piano song, to set the mood. Then he broke into the first track from the new record, “Death With Dignity.” As the title suggests, the song is about Stevens accepting the death of his mother and their lack of communication during her life.
Behind Stevens, on a video screen backdrop of sorts, videos from his childhood played throughout the songs and would be recurrent during any songs that referred to his childhood or introduced new family members.
“Death With Dignity” stuck very closely to the source material, but from that point on, Stevens began to deviate from the studio versions more and more.
On the album, sparse instrumentation — often just one or two guitars — punctuates a soft whispery delivery from Stevens, but the live version gave the album new life.
His next song, “Should Have Known Better,” was a techno-infused, bass-heavy version of its original self, and it was incredible. He followed that with a completely stripped down version of “Eugene” and more videos from his childhood. Stevens firmly placed the crowd in his happiest memories from his childhood, when his family was together in Eugene, Oregon.
He continued through the track list of the new album, playing inspired versions of “John the Beloved” and “The Only Thing.”
His next song, somewhat out of order, was “Fourth of July.” Framed as a conversation between himself and his mother while she’s on her deathbed as she asked him, “Why do you cry?” and Stevens struggled to force himself to accept the death his mother has clearly accepted. Stevens introduced sweeping background crescendos and nature sounds and electric elements as the sounds slowly built towards a climax no one in the audience expected.
The song ends with the line, “We’re all gonna die,” and as this sums up the point of the album, it appeared Stevens refused to leave it at that. When he first bellowed the line, the noise was moderate and the background was a little busy, but that was only a preface for what was to come. What followed was a multiple-minute explosion of sorts by Stevens on stage. The noise grew more and more chaotic, his voice escalated until he was screaming “We’re all gonna die,” and enveloped the crowd and forced them to face the harrowing realization, like it or not.
He followed that by slowing it down again, playing some highlights from his earlier albums, including a dream-like rendition of “The Owl and the Tanager” and an inspired duet of “The Dress Looks Nice on You.”
His “final” song was the concluding track on “Carrie,” “Blue Bucket of Gold.” It followed a similar path as “Fourth of July,” except rather than repeating vocals, instrumentals built and built until it suddenly cut off and Stevens left the stage.
The crowd rose to their feet and willed him to come back out and Stevens didn’t disappoint. The encore consisted of spirited renditions of Stevens’ major hits, including “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Chicago” from 2005’s “Illinois.”
The Academy of Music is a beautiful venue, a relic of a distant past, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate venue for the show. The Academy is a beautiful expression of a distant history and a somewhat difficult reminder that time conquers all, as was Sufjan Stevens’ entire performance.