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April 27, 2015

Stevens can’t translate intimate album to 3,500-seat venue

“Thank you. So, we watched Bring It On 2 on the bus last week,” Sufjan Stevens said, speaking for the first time eleven songs deep into the set list. It was an attempt to jerk the audience back to reality after being enmeshed in Stevens’s emotional turmoil for 40 minutes straight. The transition was an awkward one, and it is an apt metaphor for his performance as a whole: The translation of Stevens’s most recent LP, Carrie and Lowell, to the stage is poorly handled at best, a disgrace to the album at worst.

I say this with a heavy heart. Carrie and Lowell, the album Stevens’s tour is supporting, is my favorite album of 2015 so far; it’s probably the best translation of heartbreak into music I’ve ever heard. Stevens wrote the album after the death of his estranged mother, Carrie, and all of his feelings of abandonment, guilt, love, regret, depression, and inadequacy, even his grappling with mortality, are poured out lyrically.

The personal poetry (“The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name/Like a father he led community water on my head, And he called me ‘Subaru’”) is coupled with devastatingly sparse musical arrangements: delicate fingerpicking on guitar, beautiful keyboard chords, the occasional synth, and whispery, falsetto vocals. Unlike on his previous records, especially the bombastic state-themed albums, Michigan and Illinois, Stevens can’t hide behind trumpets, cymbals, and backing orchestras. The music on Carrie and Lowell almost functions like a film score—it heightens the audience’s emotions and beautifies the sentiments, but doesn’t distract the audience from the real action.

Unfortunately, on tour, Stevens throws out the idea of brutally minimalistic musical arrangements. As a result, the songs that he performed off Carrie and Lowell didn’t pack the same emotional wallop that they do on the record. Stevens added drums, bass, a backup vocalist, and an electric guitar to his live performance, and it seems to me that he did this for four main reasons.

Firstly, when you’re performing for a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theater (3,500 capacity), it’s almost a requirement that you do something flashy to justify that massive a venue—it’s designed for a Broadway show, not a folksy singer-songwriter. It may be possible that Stevens alone would have gotten boring, although I doubt it; the songs are too shatteringly honest not to be captivating.

Secondly, although Stevens proved with one number (“Eugene”) that he could indeed command a huge stage with just his guitar, performing 11 songs that way may have seemed a daunting task, especially considering their soul-baring nature.

Thirdly, Stevens has always been prone to grand displays. Have a look at his Christmas tour (titled “The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster”) if you have a hankering for an extreme extravaganza.

Finally, everyone at the concert (and everyone not at the concert) knew Stevens had to perform his song “Chicago” at the Chicago Theater in Chicago. This song, as well as many of the other non-Carrie and Lowell songs, required backup musicians (hell, Stevens couldn’t even do the Carrie and Lowell songs entirely by himself), and his band couldn’t just pick their noses on stage while Stevens plucked tremblingly on his guitar.

But Carrie and Lowell just wasn’t made to be performed live. Everything that made the record moving—its lack of adornment, the feeling of intimacy with the artist that Stevens’s lyrical honesty creates—couldn’t be recreated in a seated, 3,500 person venue. A spectacle was required to cover up this fact, and so the extra musical personnel loudly attempted the feat, but in doing so clouded what little purity a minimally-aided Stevens could have held on to.

For example, the beautiful piano-led second half of “Should Have Known Better” was mutilated by some drum freak-outs. “Drawn to the Blood” featured an attempt by Stevens’s percussionist to recreate a thunderstorm on his cymbals. This was particularly frustrating because the racket drowned out both the lyrics and the harmony between Stevens and his backup vocalist, who had a sweet, lovely voice. The last song before the encore, “Blue Bucket of Gold,” had lights like a rave and an instrumental ending that went on longer than one of Led Zeppelin’s.

Perhaps the most annoying moment of the night was when Stevens made a brave stab at “Casimir Pulaski Day,” from his fifth album, Illinois. He started over once, and then completely forgot the lyrics to one of the verses—his pianist had to prompt him. “Take it away,” Stevens ruefully told his trombone player when it was his time to solo. To add insult to injury, “Casimir Pulaski Day” was played in place of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” everyone’s favorite song about a serial killer, which he had pulled off perfectly the night before. The crowd was forgiving, although to be fair, what self-righteous Midwesterner could be irritated at a man who wrote two albums specifically about the region? That’s two more albums than had ever been written about the Midwest before he came along.

There were bright spots. “Eugene” was by far the highlight of the performance: It was Stevens and his guitar, with a lone spotlight trained on them. Being alone on a huge stage evoked the vulnerability and personal nature of the record, which the concert as a whole failed to do. The song quietly ended with a crushing line directed towards his deceased mother: “What’s the point of singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?”

“Fourth of July” was less lavishly adapted, at times sounding almost choral, and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” was only slightly re-touched. The militant drumbeat added to “Fourth of July” was mildly pleasant, or perhaps my brain had just adapted to the shock of the elaborate arrangements. The older songs from albums other than Carrie and Lowell were great; the guitarist shone on the gorgeous Durutti Column–esque solo part of “Sister.” And the encore, even accounting for the rocky “Casimir Pulaski Day,” was a triumphant ending. Stevens played “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” with just himself and the piano, and the backing band’s crowning moment was “Chicago.”

Even the Carrie and Lowell songs had redeeming qualities, namely that most of them started off with a solo Stevens (with band members joining in as the songs went on or hit an instrumental section). Thus, the emotion present on the record wasn’t entirely lost; there were plenty of girls in the restroom after the show re-applying makeup that they’d cried off. But because most of the songs (save “The Only Thing”) ended with an unnecessary amount of noise, it’s hard to remember that they started with the best of intentions.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show where I didn’t get anything at all out of a live version that I couldn’t have gotten from the record. The Carrie and Lowell tour might be the closest I’ve come to feeling that it might have been better to stay at home and marathon-listen to the album instead.

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