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When Sufjan Stevens announced his intention to produce albums based on all 50 states of the US – beginning with the release of Michigan in 2003, followed by the much acclaimed Illinois in 2005 – it was seen as eager and not to mention impossibly ambitious. After all, to complete albums of similar calibre would have taken him more than a lifetime. A few years later he retracted the project, admitting it was a “joke” and a “promotional gimmick”.
But the notion of the concept album has stayed with Stevens, and throughout his career he’s produced releases based on the Chinese Zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001); the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (The BQE, 2009); and of course, ’cause why not, a five-EP Christmas album (Songs for Christmas, 2006).
His latest, Carrie & Lowell is undoubtedly his most personal project to date. Named after his mother and stepfather, the album was written after the 2012 death of Carrie who left when Stevens was just one, and who he only had very sparse contact with growing up.
Instead of grieving privately, Stevens has raised this to the ultimate art form, choosing to perform the material in its entiretym and causing many to question how his emotional state would handle it.
So on the opening of one of Sydney’s most colourful nights (Vivid Festival) in one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, Stevens is the patient and the audience are his therapists. But there’s no couch for him to lie on or box of tissues for him to wipe his eyes. Instead, the tearjerkers are us, as we mourn with him through his life journey and relationship with his mother.
Opening with Death With Dignity, Stevens stands alone armed with an acoustic guitar, shone by a heavenly like spotlight. Behind him a childhood video plays through shapes like church stained glass windows. We see what’s presumably his father, a dead set look-a-like holding him as a baby as he finger picks his way through the song whilst his band is introduced through gradual choir-like “oohs and aahs”.
With deeply personal lyrical content, Carrie and Lowell is a very stripped back album with that frail lilting voice supported mainly by a guitar, piano or a banjo. But in a live setting, a more electronic kick is needed. Reverb features heavily throughout and any fears of tender moments were realised.
During Should Have Known Better, a song reflecting his ill-prepared grieving process, backing vocals emphasise and echo his thoughts as he sings, “My black shroud. I never trust my feelings. I waited for the remedy.”
Other times the electronics punctuates meaning. In Fourth of July, a song reciting a real or imagined conversation between Stevens and his mother, the band build in emotional momentum for the signature repetitive lyric of, “We’re all gonna die”. In the packed Opera House it literally feels like we’re all in this together, and the reality of death hits you hard.
When Stevens finally addresses the audience he delivers it like a sermon. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the beginning, the middle and the end,” he says. “We begin as dust and return as dust.”
“I know that sounds bleak, but it’s not. We rejuvenate.”
After all his songs about death, the best moment comes just before the end. After performing Blue Bucket of Gold, Stevens and his band deliver an amazing, transcendent and electrifying instrumental.
Filled with strobes and multi-coloured lights it felt like a ball of energy purging out of the soul, a new lease on life and most definitely a rejuvenation.
Image: Sufjan Stevens Live In Sydney 2015 / Image: Ashley Mar