About two months ago, I saw Sufjan Stevens for the first time. This is going to be a difficult post to write, because it won't be about just one thing. I don't think I can fit everything I want to say in a neat narrative or argument that has a beginning, progresses to a middle and finally reaches an ending. I want to talk about my relationship with Sufjan's music, more specifically the songs in The Age of Adz, as well as the live rendition of those songs; and I want to do that in a way that chronicles the experience of attending four shows on his 2011 European tour: first in Gateshead and Manchester, UK, then in Porto and Lisbon, Portugal. So this is going to be a look into Sufjan's music, but also an exercise in personal memory keeping.
On the 14th of May, Ana and I set off to Newcastle to see Sufjan. Since it was a Saturday and the show was only going to be on Monday, we spent that first day getting to know the city. We made other plans for Sunday too: we took a bus to Alnwick, where we saw the castle and the amazing Barter Books, and then to Alnmouth, from where we took a long walk in search of a field full of canola flowers we had seen from the bus. All this might sound irrelevant, but in my head those memories are all linked to the concert--to the point that I find myself misremembering things, as if there, the day before the first concert, I'd already been to all four of them. But I suppose it helps that we watched dozens of YouTube videos beforehand, so along with the anticipation, we had an idea of what to expect and talk about. When I think of that day, the first thing that comes to mind is the landscape in the picture above, after we had found the beautiful yellow field and realized we had a long walk ahead of us to get to the nearest village.
Either way, the Sage was the venue where the show was taking place. It stands right across the Millennium Bridge, which connects Newcastle to Gateshead. We had already been there on Saturday to collect our tickets, and on Monday we arrived at about 14:30 (doors opened at 19:00). Sufjan has been my favorite musician for the past decade, akin to what the Smashing Pumpkins meant to me in the late 90s and early 2000s, only I was younger and more impressionable then. I discovered his music (along with Joanna Newsom's, my other favorite) in 2004, the year I turned 20, exactly when Corgan's music (and his personal politics to boot) finally lost me. So Sufjan's songs have been closely related to my life ever since; and I've grown a fondness for the guy himself--though, of course, with all the usual caveats about people you only know from afar. My point here is: back in 2008, we stood in line for 7 hours to see the Smashing Pumpkins v2.0 play half a set and storm off stage because the venue was half-full--so you really shouldn't expect us to arrive any later to see someone we actually like. Plus, the Sage is a great venue. People didn't start lining up until about 16:15, so we were able to sit comfortably, talk and use their free wireless while we waited. They also had screens upstairs that allowed us to watch the band soundcheck "I Want To Be Well" and "Too Much".
The tickets said doors opened at 19:30, but the 15 or so people who were in line were allowed in at 19:00. It was almost an all-seated venue, except for a small pit up front (no barriers), so we stood right by the stage. I was told I could use my DSLR camera, so I took pictures of DM Stith's opening set--which was really good, by the way. Over the four shows we went to, I grew familiar with his songs and began to really like them (which reminds me: I have to buy his album). But after his set, I was approached by security, who told me I couldn't use the camera after all, and forced me to run all the way to the cloakroom. Fortunately, I was able to return in time to keep my spot.
DM Stith soon came back on stage, this time with Sufjan and the rest of the band. They always started off with the only older song Sufjan consistently played in the main set, a reworked version of "Seven Swans" (a similar version, which shares its more pronounced quiet-loud transitions, dates back from the 2006 orchestral tour). I think the song was quite fitting mood-wise, despite its overtly religious imagery, which is by and large absent in The Age of Adz. I would actually joke around that this tour could be called Suf Goes Atheist: the Musical--not because I believed he had renounced his Christian faith (which, to be honest, isn't any of my business), but because the lyrics focus on the way we experience the world as physical bodies. In "Age of Adz", for example, Sufjan sings, "When I die / I'll rot / But when I live / I'll give it all I've got." The image of a rotting body after death (rather than a spirit or a soul) is traditionally secular. And in "Vesuvius", the fabled volcano, a force of nature that is both fearsome and awesome, is alluded to instead of God, supporting the idea that this album is concerned with the physical rather than the metaphysical. But as I've discussed before, the religious elements in his songs, particularly in Seven Swans, have always been more about being human, about being of this world. That's why, I think, Seven Swans fit right in.
Since these four Sufjan shows, I've been lucky enough to see Björk twice on her Biophilia residency at the Manchester International Festival. But as much as I adore her and her songs, as much as I loved the shows (they were pretty great), the whole production felt a bit like this lolcat:
Which is so drastically different from Sufjan. He is aware (self-consciously, even) that his stage show is a little over-the-top. Micheal White, a somewhat confused music critic who attended the Royal Festival Hall show a few days before the Gateshead one, at first wondered "how an apparently sophisticated artist could have stooped to such a mire of tackiness" with a "bigger, glitzier, more commercial show than [he]’d expected." He then went on to say:
But then (OK, I’m slow) the penny dropped: the whole show turned on irony – at least, I think it did. If I was more experienced at reading pop performances, I’d have a clearer answer; and the reason I equivocate is that the irony came with a strangely playful, feelgood innocence.
Very slow indeed (and sexist as well, when he describes the dancing as being "supplied by Stevens himself with assistance from two singularly irritating women"--what the hell). No, it doesn't take a genius to realize this isn't a manufactured, shallow performance, but neither is it an ironic commentary on those types of concerts (I refuse to refer to them as "commercial" or "mainstream"). Rather, Sufjan and his band willingly adopt the pop show format and its tropes, not for the sake of cynical criticism, but to convey a particular meaning. To give you an idea of the tone of the show, here's a comment Sufjan made in Manchester: "So it's funny, I really have a lot of... I guess I have a lot of respect for Justin Bi--Bieber and, uh, hit me one more time, what's her name? B--B--B--Britney Spears. I don't understand how these people can dance and sing at the same time, it's remarkable. Janet Jackson and Linda Ronstadt. It's pretty amazing."
But more interesting still is the fact that The Age of Adz, the album, sets a similar tone. The self-references in the third person ("Sufjan, follow your heart" or "Hold on Suf, hold on Suf, hold on Sufjan") are an example of this. They remind me of when, back in 2006, he was asked if the "Come On Feel the Illinoise!" interlude intentionally referenced the song "Close to Me"; he answered that "it didn’t start out sounding so much like The Cure, but at the end [he] was struck by the resemblance, so [he] decided to accentuate it." Likewise, I can just picture him thinking The Age of Adz was a little too self-preoccupied and dramatic, but instead of holding back, he consciously made it more dramatic, giving the songs a self-awareness that couldn't be achieved otherwise. And so the overall effect is that you see Sufjan being dead fucking serious without taking himself too seriously.
One could argue this is an artifice to deflect attention away from the highly personal material he's produced, but I think that's more of a side effect of it. I still think its main purpose is to add casualness to the mix: it is a way to signal that these ~feelings~ are important to us, that our lives are based on them, but also acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things our lives themselves are inconsequential before the hugeness of space and, even more relevantly, time. So it makes sense that Sufjan would always say with poker-faced humor: "That ["Age of Adz"] is my love song to the apocalypse. A lot of the new songs I'm playing tonight are from my most recent record The Age of Adz. Songs of love, and heartache, illness, the nervous system and the solar system."
He would also describe his new music as "slightly psychotic, and hormonal, and bipolar." And then he would go on to say, "It's a real experimentation with a kind of personal psychology and my relationship to death and life and mortality, so I'm apologizing in advance for all the drama. And to clear the air, I'm going to play a folk song." The show was structured in such a way that he would play a few The Age of Adz songs and then have a break with an acoustic song. The first one he played in Gateshead was "Enchanting Ghost", followed a few songs later by "The Owl and the Tanager", which I managed record:
I suppose this one shouldn't actually be included among the folk songs: it doesn't feel like a break, emotionally speaking. However, I always grouped them together in my mind because they represented an element of surprise in the context of the show--while the louder songs were always in the setlist, Sufjan would usually pick one folk song ("Enchanting Ghost" or "Heirloom"), and then later a piano one ("The Owl and the Tanager" or "Now that I am Older"). Either way, this was definitely one of the highlights of the night.
Curiously, I didn't love it right away when I first listened to it, back when it was called "Barn Owl, Night Killer." Now I think it's one of the strongest songs he's ever written--and I don't even mean my personal favorite, the song I feel the closest to. Obviously, I don't mean that it's his best song objectively (as decided by me, ha): I just think it's incredibly good writing, dealing with an incredibly nuanced and difficult subject. For example, at some point he sings, "And your father called to yell at me / You little boy, you little boy"--and then, later on, he repeats, "I was sleeping in the room with you / You little boy, you little boy". The latter verse echoes the former, acquiring some of its emotional weight. Also, what a brilliant way to signal that the two kids were boys.
I know I'm just quoting lines and not truly dissecting the song, but I could almost make a point out of this: the song juxtaposes images of affection and overwhelming violence, giving rise to contradictory feelings that tend to resist to analysis. In "The Owl and the Tanager", we encounter discrepant emotions that are hard to conciliate: not only affection and violence, but also the reckless nature of the relationship versus the muffled, hidden expression of it.
We were lucky to get this song at three out of four shows, since it was only played eight times on the entire tour. My favorite performance was probably the Gateshead one, but there was a moment in Manchester that blew me away. Fellow concert-goer Sophie recorded it (check out her youtube channel, her videos are all really good). I can't describe what Sufjan did in musical terms (it might have been a mistake?), but he hits a different note at the 5:53 mark, and it conveys a certain tentativeness that fits that part of the song so well. Throughout the song you have lines like "I'm bleeding in spite of my love for you / It bruised and bruised my will" and "For I am the ugliest prey / The owl, the reckless, reckless preys"--and then, in the last two stanzas, which are my favorite of all, he sings,
You said you'd wait for me
Down by the tannery creek
Far out by the clothesline where
We used to kiss behind the sheets
Wrapped in a blanket of red
The owl and the tanager said
The owl and the tanager said
One waits until the hour is death
... which sound like they are spoken by someone whose will has been bruised, who sits there amid those unresolved emotions, too worn out to rage any longer. I'm truly glad to have seen this song live. I loved the version released in All Delighted People, but now it pales in comparison.
Another detail I remember from the Gateshead show is Sufjan joking to the crowd about how he got Cat Martino and Nedelle Torrisi to tour with him: he invited them to come along, and they said that yeah, it'd be awesome, but he "forgot" to mention that they'd have to do all that dancing. When they got there and found they had to learn all those choreographies, they protested: "It's not faaair! We're calling the Singers' Union!" And then there was also the time before Vesuvius when he listed all his phobias as a child, like heights, aloe vera, television, cooked fruit inside stuff ("oatmeal cookies with raisins in them, ugh; blueberry muffins--terrifying"), anything that wasn't room temperature, anything that cast a shadow, and hot lava. It was practically the Sufjan Stevens Comedy Show.
Even though we were on the first row at all the shows, in Gateshead we had by far the best spot, because we were right against the stage and the band was standing close to the edge. The only problem was that the encore was cut short: they only played "Chicago". Ana was given the "All for Myself" lyrics sheet and I got the setlist, so we found out the plan had been to play "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL", "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "Chicago." I'm not quite sure why they didn't, but I think the venue had a strict curfew. Either way, if I'd only been to this one show, I would have a lot more to say about it; but since I'm still going to write about three other concerts, I'll leave the banter, "Impossible Soul," "Chicago," etc. for later.
So Ana and I came back to our home in Manchester. Meanwhile, the band traveled to Ireland for a two night stand in Dublin. Three days later, we took the day off to roam the Manchester city center and arrive early at the Manchester Apollo, where the second concert would take place. When we got there, we saw two buses with a .ie URL on either side; and a while later, Ana went looking for a bathroom and found DM Stith lying on the grass just outside the venue (when she told me about it, he was already gone). Oh, and we saw the venue staff filling up all the balloons for Chicago. Then, when people started lining up, there was some anxiety involved, because even though we had been there for a couple of hours, the staff opened a priority queue for O2 costumers. More annoyingly still, they opened that door before any others--but somehow we managed to run in and snatch places on the front row, dead center.
The DM Stith set was quite good, as always, but the one in Gateshead was considerably better--the crowd was smaller but more attentive, whereas in Manchester people were busy getting drinks. Then, when he left and came back with the entire band half an hour later, the hushed plucking of the banjo and Sufjan's whispered voice, in almost total darkness (except for Sufjan's upper body and the little stars forming signs in the background), gave way to a show of lights, wings and explosive sounds. I don't think I could tire of seeing "Seven Swans" live.
This show was special to me for a number of reasons. As I've mentioned before, Sufjan played a heartbreakingly beautiful version of "The Owl and the Tanager". The one thing that could have bothered me, the enormous apron between the band and the crowd, turned out to give us a different perspective to appreciate the video projections by Deborah Johnson, based on Royal Robertson's artwork. And Sufjan, realizing they were indeed too far from us, as if they were in the belly of a whale (actually, "some kind of cosmic, mechanical, celestial space whale"), came forward to play his folk songs.
That's not all, though. Sometime between the Gateshead and Manchester shows, I told Ana that it was a shame Sufjan would probably never play his cover of "The One I Love" again. "The Lakes of Canada" I could see him playing in a future tour, but "The One I Love"? Not as likely. Anyway, when he came forward to play a folk song, I started recording a video because I was hoping he would play "Heirloom" (rather than "Enchanting Ghost", which I had already seen in Gateshead), but instead we got this:
When he played those two notes before adjusting the capo, I recognized them instantly. At the time I didn't know if he was doing this because it was the last UK date, or if he had suddenly decided to introduce more songs into the setlist (this turned out to be the case), but in any case, it was such a nice surprise. And to make it even better, when he came back to the edge of the stage, I started filming in hopes that this time we would get "Heirloom". But this is what we got instead:
Freaking "Sister". I'm not really going to talk about the song itself (I've already done it here), but it was such a beautiful moment. He seemed to like our singing (if I'm not mistaken, this was the only time he did an outro as well as the intro). The band seemed to be in a good mood, the crowd seemed happy. And later on, after the fantastic "Impossible Soul", Sufjan came back for an encore and played "UFO" solo. Then he brought the band on again for a performance of "Casimir Pulaski Day" and, as always, "Chicago."
"Casimir Pulaski Day" is my favorite song ever. I say this as someone who didn't have a favorite song until this one. In reality, there is no way for me to measure that properly; I don't really know that this is my favorite song, because there are so many songs that I love, for so many different reasons. But I do know that I choose this song as my favorite, because of the vivid simplicity of its language (there is nothing complicated in "On the first of March on the holiday / I thought I saw you breathing" other than the complications it evokes). Seeing it live for the first time was a special moment. There was a girl behind us who was singing along (and she had a pretty nice singing voice for "Sister", actually), and she respectfully toned it down when she realized she was being a bit intrusive. Everyone else seemed equally mesmerized. What I love the most about "Casimir Pulaski Day" is how it's an attempt to come to grips with loss; and faith, while comforting for many, also leaves open a series of questions that otherwise wouldn't be posed. And in the end we all chanted a melody that to me communicates just that, a quiet unresolved sense of loss, but not in an embittered or entitled way. It was sad and beautiful.
After the Manchester show, we had to come back down to Earth for about two weeks. Our plan was to fly to Portugal on the 29th of May, then go to the Porto concert on the 30th and the Lisbon one on the 31st. Then we'd stay with Ana's parents in Braga until the 9th. However, one week before our flight, an Icelandic volcano erupted and the ashes reached the UK. Flights were disrupted and we didn't know if we would be able to fly out. We actually considered taking a bus from Manchester to Braga, via London and Paris; but by Friday the eruption had subsided and the ashes dissipated, so our Sunday flight took off without problems. All the while, I had a strict work deadline early on Monday that I couldn't miss.
I didn't miss the deadline, but I barely slept that night. I was able to take a nap once we arrived in Porto and checked in at the hostel, though. We still did some walking around town that day, taking pictures and wondering if the band had seen the places we were seeing now. But by 16:30 we were already at the venue, ready to make a run for the first row. I was the first person into the room and grabbed the best spots; and soon afterwards Ana came, along with another Brazilian guy who was waiting right behind us in line. He seemed pretty enthusiastic and brought a "Setlist, Please!" sign, which caused Cat to come down and give him one in the middle of the show. After it was over, he gave us the sign, and we got ourselves yet another setlist for our collection (we got one for all shows, except the Lisbon one).
It was a great show that night, but compared to the other three, it was perhaps the least distinctive. Except for the Royal Robertson speech, Sufjan was a little quieter than usual, and we even wondered if there was anything wrong. The songs themselves were stellar, though, and I'm glad we got "Now That I Am Older" (which we hadn't seen yet because of "The Owl and the Tanager"). But the show really picked up during Impossible Soul, and the encore was great with "UFO" (a lovely version in which he repeated "or what it was" six times instead of two), "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Chicago."
These were all long shows, about two hours and a half each, and Sufjan spent at least 15 minutes speaking to the audience. The centerpiece of these interactions was his Royal Robertson presentation. They weren't exactly the same from show to show, but at this point I can't quite tell them apart anymore. All I know is that the Porto one was my favorite, because he focused on the specific way Royal had influenced The Age of Adz -- he told us about how Royal's artwork, for all its outer space, prophetic, apocalyptic mythology, expressed emotions and anxieties that were at their core very human, and as such it was an inspiration in his own work. Sufjan always got this point across, but more often than not he said it in a roundabout way. Not in Porto though: he just plain said it. I also really appreciated the fact that he neither downplayed nor exalted the very problematic nature of Royal's life and work. One of the things that strike me the most about Royal is how misogynistic his work is; and while I strongly criticize that sort of philosophy, I don't think Royal's work is good in spite of his bigotry. Royal's work is good, at least in part, because of it. And that's not at all the same as approving of those problematic elements. I just mean that they work to paint a psychological portrait of a flawed human being. I think that's how Sufjan himself sees Royal: an individual who made art true to his personal circumstances.
There was also a little bit of banter that made me laugh. In every concert, Sufjan would explain that his approach to writing The Age of Adz was different from his other albums: this time he had started by experimenting with sound, creating patterns and running loops through effects, and only later shaping them into songs. But in Porto he added something a little bit different, which was that the process had been like sitting around jamming all day and smoking pot, minus the pot because "music is my only drug". It was funny because it was an obvious response to this and this, and he probably hoped his words would find their way to the Internet. Speaking of which, although the fan community (like any large community) can be infuriating at times, I'm so glad it exists. I have to admit I'm old fashioned and much prefer the days of the old LiveJournal community, All Good Naysayers and the Sufjan Fans forums (I'm not too thrilled about Tumblr as a community platform), but nonetheless I loved following the tour through reports written by fellow fans--and when it was our turn, I loved coming back and sharing the experience with whoever cared to listen. This is why I think Alec Duffy, the man who won the rights to "The Lonely Man of Winter" in a Christmas contest a few years back, is an asshat. The Internet, he decided, is an impersonal medium that devalues art by making it too readily available. To fix this problem, he has quaint tea parties in his Brooklyn apartment where fans socialize with him and listen to the song. It's really creepy when you think about it: "You'd really like to listen to this, huh? Then come to papa." The issue is not so much that we are entitled to the song (we aren't), but that he only shares it with strings attached. I much prefer the Internet, where you give for the sake of giving, and you get with no obligation to give anything back. I find that the interactions that spring from this premise are a lot more genuine--and they definitely made the tour greater than it would have been.
So okay, now I finally get to talk about "Chicago". Back in 2004, in October to be more specific, Ana saw Sufjan on the European Seven Swans tour (I still lived in Brazil and was unable to attend). I discovered his music exactly because he was announced on the lineup for Festival Para Gente Sentada, and soon we both grew to favor him over bigger names like Devendra Banhart. By the time of the concert, we were already in love with Michigan and Seven Swans. I remember when she arrived from the show and told me all about it--she'd talked to Sufjan and even got him to write me a note--and, mostly importantly, she told me about the last song he'd played: the yet-to-be-released "Chicago." I went looking for it online and found it at the LiveJournal community; they had a link to a WNYC radio session where he'd played it. I must have listened to it on repeat hundreds and hundreds of times. Seriously, if it had been a vinyl or cassette, I'd have worn it out.
That version, with a lone banjo behind a cracking voice, is to this day the definite recording of the song for me. In a different bootleg from that same year, Sufjan says, "So, uh, what I'm working on now is Illinois. This song is called 'Chicago'. (Pause). Th--this one is hard to do."--this for a four-chord song that even I can strum. Then with Illinois the arrangements changed to something more grandiose, the album went big, and since then the song must have been in the setlist for nearly every show he's played. I can't know how Sufjan feels about "Chicago," but now when I watch all the balloons falling from the ceiling at the start of the song, I see it as an acknowledgment that one simply cannot bring back the time when the song was still so intimate and raw. Here's Ana's account of the banter at the Porto show:
Before Chicago, Sufjan said he’d played here before many years ago at a very small club, and then asked if anyone had been at that show. And of course that I, who was front row centre and therefore RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM, proceeded to raise my hand and wave like the crazy person that I am. Seriously, where’s my shyness when I need it most? As you can probably tell, my brain is already in the process of turning this into a mortifying moment. Anyway, he nodded at me and said that had been a good show, but so much had changed since then.
So instead of trying and failing, Sufjan did something else entirely with it. I had fun--I had a lot of fun throwing balloons on stage, singing along (Nedelle once came down and let us sing into her microphone)--and, at least to me, there was only ever a small hint of that old emotional weight. It was like celebrating the song instead of hands-on experiencing it--which in the end is also an experience of its own. It was about creating a new life through celebration, instead of fixating on reenacting the things we used to have.
We arrived at the hostel that night with a balloon, a glowing sticker that Cat put on Ana's arm during "Impossible Soul" and the setlist DM Stith gave Ana when he saw her with the "Setlist, Please!" sign. It was late, but I took my time to go online to submit the setlist to setlist.fm; meanwhile, Ana jotted down some notes on Tumblr for the ones who were eager to know more about it. Then early in the morning we were off to Lisbon for the very last show on the European The Age of Adz tour.
We walked around the familiar streets of Lisbon, taking pictures and once again wondering if Sufjan and the band were doing the same. It turned out that they were, around the very same area, but we didn't run into them. At that point, I found myself wanting to chat more with DM Stith, Cat and Nedelle than with Sufjan himself, for two reasons. First of all, before the three concerts I'd seen so far, I didn't know much about the band members. I was more fond of Shara Worden and Katrina Kerns, since I knew them from all the videos I'd watched during the Illinois tour. But since then, I'd grown fond of those three too (the other band members, unfortunately, just stood back and played--except for Zardok the Explorer, AKA the Cassio guy, during "Futile Devices"). I had never followed a band around like this, so it was pretty interesting to see myself develop a sense of kinship to people who had no idea whom I was. It was different from admiring someone from afar; it was more about this gut feeling of having a shared experience with them.
And the reason why I didn't really daydream about meeting Sufjan was that I imagined the dynamics would be all messed up. If I met DM Stith, Cat or Nedelle on the streets, I'd have no problems asking if they were staying a while longer before flying back to America. I'd suggest Sintra as a nice place to visit, and I might even consider volunteering as an interpreter if they seemed open enough. But I'd only ever do that because there'd be a common understanding that I saw them as regular people--that I didn't expect anything from them. I see Sufjan as a regular person too, someone I could probably be acquainted or even friends with in the right circumstances; but with him, I just don't see how I could say, "Hey, do you want to come along too?" or talk about Life, the Universe and Everything without giving off the strong impression that I'm starved for a connection with him, and that anything he gives will become a treasure. We were all there to see his show, after all. The matter is not that I'd sound pathetic--I honestly do not care one iota if I do--but that it must be burdensome to feel like you are around people who have such high, unattainable expectations of you. I wouldn't want to make him feel that way (because, to be honest, I really don't expect anything of him), so I thought I'd rather just skip the whole thing. Ana wrote about this in much more detail here.
Either way, Ana and I walked past the venue quite a few times over the day, but there was no one lining up yet. Since it'd taken a long time for other people to start arriving in Porto, we figured we could go get some food. However, when we came back, there were already some people at the entrance, forming one line in front of each staircase leading to the main door (we entered the one on the right). There were only three people ahead of us at first, but a couple of hours later they brought some friends in and we started wondering if we'd be up front at all. But in the rush to go in, we ended up finding ourselves a good spot on the front row.
Looking at the crowd, we could tell the show was going to be great. Everyone around us was excited, and some guys brought a bag full of balloons for us to fill. After we were done, we saw a roadie come on stage to take pictures. The people next to us also brought stickers to put on their arms and faces, emulating Sufjan's outfit. This might sound like a silly distraction, but it was a sign that people were willing to get into the serious-but-not-too-serious mood of the show; that they were willing to be awed by and participate in the choreography, and the video projections, and the light show, which were actually really grandiose and imposing, if you managed to tap into that old comic-book, end-of-the-world sort of aesthetic. And indeed, the show was amazing. The only complaint I had was that some people at the back started yelling during Sufjan's Royal speech, so he cut it short and went right into "Get Real Get Right."
Speaking of which, that song was always great to watch. Another one that Sufjan always played and that I enjoyed each and every time was "Futile Devices". Allow me to preface this by saying that, ever since I found the Sufjan online fan community, people have argued about whether Sufjan is gay. In 2004, this mostly took the form of:
"Just listen to To Be Alone With You! Clearly gay!"
"Yeah, gay for Jesus. Ha. Ha."
Then, with Illinois, the arguments were mostly centered around "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" You had one group of people interpreting the relationship in the song as clearly homosexual, and other people getting angry because that obviously didn't mean Sufjan was gay, oh no. And what I always thought about this--other than it being none of our business whether Sufjan as an individual was gay--was that there were some pretty homophobic undertones in the not-gay camp, while the pro-gay camp was quite simplistic in their understanding of gender and sexual orientation. In "The Wasp," I don't think we have enough textual support to know whether it depicts homosexual feelings, like "The Owl and the Tanager" clearly does, or a non-normative version of heteromasculinity--which I would argue is the case in "Futile Devices."
Non-normative depictions of masculinity aren't exactly common, but they are definitely out there for people to find. More specifically, there are stories told and songs written about heterosexual men who care deeply about each other, who have close friendships with emotional depth; but while those stories do attempt to reclaim a sphere of human experience that is traditionally reserved for women, they only do so in a way that concern the so-called "higher" emotions. Actually, this is true of heterosexual people in general: even the non-normative ones convey their feelings for people of the same gender in terms of love, loyalty, friendship, etc. But take a look at the lyrics for "Futile Devices":
It's been a long, long time
Since I've memorized your face
It's been four hours now
Since I've wandered through your place
And when I sleep on your couch
I feel very safe
And when you bring the blankets
I cover up my face
And when you play guitar
I listen to the strings buzz
The metal vibrates underneath your fingers
And when you crochet
I feel mesmerized and proud
And I would say I love you
But saying it out loud is hard
So I won't say it at all
And I won't stay very long
But you are life I needed all along
I think of you as my brother
Although that sounds dumb
And words are futile devices
Yes, Sufjan does sing about his feelings in terms of love, brotherhood and pride. But what I love about this song is that it establishes a much rarer connection: he signals the non-sexual nature of his feelings by saying he thinks of the other person as a brother, but at the same time he connects those feelings with a type of imagery that wouldn't be interpreted that way, at least not in our culture. There is a heavy emphasis on the senses ("And when you play guitar / I listen to the strings buzz / The metal vibrates underneath your fingers"), which is almost always read as erotic or, in the case of a relationship between two men, homoerotic. But it isn't, or if it is, that's beyond the point. Words, in this case, really are futile devices, in the sense that if you look close enough, gender, sexual orientation and even sexual attraction reveal themselves to be arbitrary constructs; and it's incredibly hard to express feelings that don't quite fit one category or the other. You could argue that this isn't exactly true, that many people recognize that human sexuality is a continuum, from homosexual to bisexual to heterosexual, but I'm not exploring sexual orientation here: this is about what counts as "sexual" and what doesn't, and how it is hard to communicate emotions that escape the categories encoded in everyday language.
Here I've tried to get to the bottom of the feeling I get when I listen to the song, to figure out why it makes me feel the way I do; but even if I've made myself understood at an intellectual level, that's really all I've accomplished. Somehow, Sufjan manages to convey these feelings in a very immediate way. "Futile Devices" isn't unlike "Casimir Pulaski Day", in the sense that he employs simple language to convey a complex and vivid emotional landscape. It's a great song, and I would be excited to see it live for the 5th time if I had the chance. The live version isn't dramatically different from the album, but it is still moving in a slightly rawer way, especially when it comes to his singing (which is the reason why I collect bootlegs; I like the rough edges of live music). In fact, the whole album now sounds a little tame in comparison; a song like "Age of Adz" is basically the same, but it just doesn't sound as energetic on the album. It'd be amazing if Asthmatic Kitty released a DVD of the tour. They do have the footage.
I'm not going to talk about all the songs here, but I did enjoy The Age of Adz live immensely: from "Vesuvius" and "I Want to Be Well" to "Too Much" and "I Walked." Also, if I were to write about any of these concerts separately, "Impossible Soul" would have to be a central part of it; the only reason why I haven't said anything about it so far is that I didn't want to repeat myself. Here is what Sufjan said about the song in a Drowned in Sound interview:
It’s like a Woody Allen film, you know, where there’s the slapstick on the surface that everyone can appreciate, but then, deeper, there’s all these original details. Maybe at the heart of a good Woody Allen film there’s some kind of universal tragedy of humanity that he’s speaking about; a much bigger thing. ‘Impossible Soul’ is really about a very primitive object. I want to get with a girl, and there’s all these obstacles, and shortcomings, and miscommunication… and this is a basic fundamental of life, between two human beings.
But then very quickly – through an expository detour – it becomes something else. It’s all about personal happiness, or the state of mankind, or the cosmos – the cosmos is drawn into it. And then it becomes about… what is at the heart of our inability to really connect? Is it fear, or is it self-consciousness? And then it becomes a kind of therapeutic discourse that becomes the centrepiece of the song. But it’s no longer about, just like, “girl, I want to get with you.” It’s more like… what’s wrong with civilisation (laughs).
Even if I'm highly skeptical of authorial authority, I still think this is a great explanation--I would think so even if it were coming from someone else. Once again, the stage show complements the song brilliantly. The beginning is similar to the other The Age of Adz songs, but soon it grows into its own visual spectacle with the "Do you want to be afraid?" section, sung primarily by Cat and Nedelle:
And then with the infamous auto-tune part, sung by disco-ball/crystal-head/rocket-man:
Now, please allow me a detour here. In a Pitchfork interview, Sufjan said, "Even a very simple thing like dancing-- which to anyone else would be normal and natural-- is very alien and weird for me." Even if he had never said this, it would have been obvious: though he performs the choreography competently, I think anyone can tell he is doing all those moves very deliberately, as if he's rehearsed them countless times instead of expressing a natural urge to embody the music. It ends up looking very cool and extremely dorky all at the same time. You can see this during "Age of Adz", for example (which, by the way, is a good example of the stage show when he's not playing folk songs):
I can definitely relate to the feeling: I simply don't dance. This isn't some sort of political stance. I just find there is a big disconnect between my feelings and the way those feelings are traditionally articulated. Now, unlike a few years ago, I actually bob my head or keep time with my foot -- but the disconnect is so big that sometimes I find myself tapping my foot when the song is already over, like a nervous twitch rather than a communion with the music. If you play me a song and ask me to dance, I will freeze, not because I'm particularly shy or embarrassed, but because there is no stirring in my mind, no impulse to move when a song moves me. I could only dance if I carefully devised a choreography and then learned it through painstaking repetition.
That being said, when we got to the dancey part of "Impossible Soul", for the first time in my entire life, I jumped up and down at a concert and truly meant it. It wasn't liberating--I was definitely not letting loose some lifelong repressed urge--I just, quite suddenly, actually felt like it. And it was a lovely moment. Ana was jumping next to me, and so were the people all around us; and Nedelle was jumping right in front of us too, with that big smile of hers, while confetti was flying all over us. I might be making this up, but even Sufjan looked different during this part: his dancing seemed less calculated (making it look less cool, but more spontaneous). Lisbon was the only place where this happened to me, and where everyone, not just half a dozen people, joined in.
That part was also fun because we'd always ask ourselves, "What is Suf going to come up with now?" Each time he would put on all sorts of outrageous clothes and accessories, which became more and more outrageous as the tour went on. Then the happy and life-affirming mood would get warped, like one of those movies where a human-looking robot starts to melt and speak with a creepy, artificial voice. And finally, when all sounds died down, Sufjan would pick up his acoustic guitar and play the closing section (which, it turns out, is called "Pleasure Principle"):
What I love the most about this part of the song is that it complements the life-affirming innocence of the previous one so well. I love life, but I often feel that the songs that celebrate it sound shallow, even off-putting in their privilege--they don't acknowledge that life is in reality a messy affair. I don't want my happy songs to say that complications don't exist, nor to acknowledge them only to obliterate them in a triumphant ending. I want my happy songs to be happy in spite of all the hardships; or, even better, I want my happy songs to have a love for life that includes those hardships. Musically, this sort of emotional overlap is realized through the use of the same melody in both sections.
As for the live rendition, I think it is brilliant how Sufjan is still wearing the whole party outfit during the quiet part. It's a moving contrast--it kind of reminds me of when my grandma died and my brother started crying amidst the toys he was playing with only moments before. And in Lisbon in particular, that song temporarily acquired a new meaning: it was the end of the tour, and the line "boy, we made such a mess together" didn't seem to refer to a messy relationship anymore. It was about the whole mess we'd all just made. This time DM Stith, Cat and Nedelle were visible on stage, and it was easy to tell they were going to miss everything.
After that, they did an encore with "UFO," "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "Chicago." I've already talked about "Chicago," so I won't repeat myself here, but this time was the best of them all. Singing along to "All Things Go" was a great way to end the tour. For the first time, at least at the shows we attended, Sufjan came down to the pit and joined Cat and Nedelle. All the other band members were having fun too (just look at DM Stith). And then it was all over--they stood there for little longer, catching their breath and thanking the crowd, and they were gone. Ana and I tried to use the "Setlist, Please!" sign again, but this time it didn't work. We stayed inside for a bit, then we took one last look at the merchandise table and left through the main door.
There were still a lot of people hanging out outside the venue. We wanted to linger a little longer instead of just letting the whole experience go and calling it a night. We went to the back of the venue and it was actually quite lively there, with people playing with balloons and all that--but in half an hour almost everyone was gone. We just didn't leave because there were still four pretty young kids there, so it wasn't too weird to stay. Then the idea of staying even longer to meet Sufjan started gaining some real traction in my mind. True, I wouldn't have wanted to stay if there were too many people there, but there were only six of us. I didn't like the idea of the weird dynamics of a fan/artist interaction, also true, but at that point I was in the mood to say thanks for all the shows.
So we stayed. Soon the venue staff drove a truck into the alley, and we figured the band was about to come out. A while later, a few band members did come out with their luggage (I'm not sure who they were--one of the drummers, I think?) and nodded as they walked past us. But then we waited, waited and waited and nothing happened. It was past 1 a.m. when one of the staff told us, in Portuguese, "Their bus will only come at three." We told him that Sufjan sometimes came to talk to people outside (we heard he did in Manchester, though we didn't stay), so he said we should go talk to the tour manager who were standing by the door. None of the kids wanted to go, so I decided I would, and Ana came with me. It went more or less like this:
"Hi, do you know if the band is coming out to say hi?"
"Oh, no, they never do that."
"We heard they did in Manchester, so we thought they might here too."
"Yeah, but that would have been a coincidence. Also, it's the last night of the tour, so they are too busy packing, and..."
"Oh well, so could you tell them we said thanks for the show?
"Oh, I definitely will."
We went back and told them we had no luck. We did notice that the guy we'd talked to wasn't there anymore, though. At that point two of the kids really wanted to leave, because their moms were mad at them for being out so late (lol), but the other two convinced them to stay for another five minutes in case the band did come out. No one did, though; so they headed out and there were only four of us left.
We waited another five or ten minutes, and then we gave up. They weren't coming out. We started going down the alley towards the main street, but I turned my back and walked backwards so that I could see the back door until it disappeared behind the wall. I knew it would be in vain, it always is--except this time I sighted the tour manager coming out of the door, looking for something or someone. I went up to him (Ana stayed, the two kids didn't notice and kept walking), and he told me to wait there because the band would be out in five minutes.
I called out to them and they came running; and then they desperately called their friends. About five minutes later, they both arrived out of breath saying at once, "IS HE GONE?! WE WERE ALREADY IN A CAB!"
Shortly after that, we saw Sufjan, Nedelle and Cat behind the glass door. One of the staff said, "There they are, go talk to them," but we only took something like three or four steps and stood against the wall, like cattle waiting to be slaughtered. It was pretty amusing. So Sufjan went up to us--wearing a cowboy hat and a tucked in green Michigan shirt--shook the first kid's hand and said:
"Hi, I'm Sufjan."
Then on to the next:
"Hi, I'm Sufjan."
And on and on until he had greeted us all.
I think Ana said thanks for the shows then, and the kids kept saying stuff like, "It was great!--yes, the balloons, the balloons were amazing!" Sufjan said it really was the best show of the tour (DM Stith agreed), and Nedelle mentioned how there wasn't a single frown in the room.
One of the kids asked Sufjan to sign a Primavera setlist (Sufjan asked, "Oh, were you there?" but someone had given it to him) and another one handed him a Lisbon setlist. As he was signing it, Sufjan crossed out "All for Myself" and said that he hadn't played it by accident. That was when Ana told him she loved it when he played it in Gateshead, and he answered he didn't actually know the lyrics. Then Ana said she had his lyrics sheet from that show, which made him laugh and say he should have asked her for it. That was all while he was autographing their setlists.
Then Ana got our tickets from that night and said, "Well, while you are at it, can you sign these too?" Meanwhile, I turned to Nedelle (Cat stood behind and didn't really talk to us). I think I've already explained how attending all those concerts felt like "having a shared experience" with the band; and as I was talking to Nedelle, I fully realized how different that was from "having shared an experience" with them. It wasn't that surprising that she didn't remember us from past shows (though she did say "I recognize all of you from the front row!"). What struck me the most was that I didn't know her regular, non-singing voice, let alone her off-stage mannerisms. She was really nice to us, though. I asked her if they'd seen all the extra balloons, and she said that yeah, there were more balloons this time, weren't there? And when I explained it was because someone from the crowd had brought them, she said, "Aw, that's so cute!"
Then the other two kids gave Sufjan their copies of The Age of Adz to sign, and Nedelle didn't seem familiar with it; if I'm not mistaken, she hadn't seen the picture of Sufjan inside it, and he made a passing comment about it which I don't remember anymore. Either way, I don't know how the subject came about, but we got to talk about the show he'd played in Portugal in 2004. That was mostly between him and Ana--I remember when he asked, "Were you there?" And she said that she was and that she'd talked to him afterwards. Then they agreed it'd been a really intimate show, and I remembered an old interview with Rosie Thomas where she said:
PM: Wow, you were headlining in Europe.
RT: Can you believe that? And then, of course, he just blew up.
PM: He did, didn't he?
RT: Ah, he sure did, man. I keep reminding him of that, "There was a time, there was one week I did headline for you, you bastard." He goes, "Whatever, dude."
So of course I said, "And you were opening for Rosie, right?" And, obviously and unfortunately, he didn't say, "Whatever, dude." Instead, his expression lightened up a little (like "oh, that's right!") and he said that yeah, he had, and that Rosie was so cute and funny. That also seemed to make him come up with more details about the show: he asked if he had a Michigan map on stage, and Ana told him that he did.
At some point, I'm not quite sure when, he pulled out of one of his kabuki streamers and popped it at us. I just stood there thinking, "LOL WUT." He said it was his last one. I also laughed after Ana said it was a shame that people interrupted his Royal Robertson speech. He told us that he was actually glad that they had done it, because sometimes he gets carried away and doesn't realize people are there for the music and not to hear him speak. He said this very humbly, unlike a certain aforementioned bald head (i.e. no "NO ONE UNDERSTANDS MY GENIUS" bullshit). And then he closed his remarks with, "Less talk, more ROCK!"
I'm probably forgetting a lot of things here. Either way, he mentioned it was really late already, and I said that yeah, shows in Portugal always start and end really late. He also made a comment about the venue, how it was old and seemed to have a lot of history. As we were about to say goodbye, I asked, "Are you guys flying back to America tonight?" Nedelle said that she was, in the morning. Sufjan said, "Actually, I'm staying for a couple of days to rest." I think he mentioned he'd be with a friend too. Then we wished them a safe trip and a nice stay; and the kids told him not to take 7 years to come back. Suf said he definitely wouldn't--that he wanted to have played in Portugal the other times he toured Europe, but it'd never worked out. The kids also told him they had to go because their moms were mad at them (double lol). Then off we went to our hostel, and between posting about our encounter and talking to each other about the show, it was 4 a.m. before we really went to bed.
What I truly appreciated about meeting Suf was that it wasn't anything less nor anything more than it could have been. The most common reaction I get after telling this story is, "OMG IT MUST HAVE BEEN AMAZING YOU MUST HAVE BEEN ECSTATIC I AM SO JEALOUS!" But really, it wasn't what I would call amazing, nor was I ecstatic. This isn't to say that it didn't mean anything to me, because it did: it's just that it was more of a nice closure than a crowning moment. I was glad to be able to say thank you for those shows that quite obviously meant something to me. The reason why I say this is that, when people assume it was like a dream come true, it sort of obfuscates the real meaning it had for me; it elevates that moment to something that nothing mundane could ever live up to. And that's exactly what it was: normal, mundane. I don't think it could have been nicer, or any more meaningful, given the circumstances. He's a nice dude, and very easy to talk to.
Well, that's about it, I think. If you live in New York (or can make your way there), you can still buy tickets for the last show of the tour. Don't miss it:
All Our Videos From the European Age of Adz Tour
All Our Pictures From the Gateshead Concert
All Our Pictures From the Manchester Concert
All Our Pictures From the Porto Concert
All Our Pictures From the Lisbon Concert