A bathetic display
Sufjan Stevens at Vivid Live, Opera House Concert Hall, Friday 22 May 2015

I leant forward in my seat when, two-thirds of the way through his lengthy set at the Sydney Opera House, Sufjan Stevens played ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, his most beloved song. I was waiting for Stevens not to screw this up with the same extravagant perversity that had ruined most of his performance, and (what relief) he didn’t screw it up. The song, a subdued study of grief that is all the more heart-wrenching for its fatalism, was played beautifully by Stevens and his band – even a flourish of trumpet was perfectly judged. “In the morning, in the winter shade / On the 1st of March, on the holiday / I thought I saw you breathing,” Stevens sang, and the whole audience seemed to breathe with him. Not only that, but the musicians on stage appeared to be listening to each other. If only the same could be said about the rest of the evening’s set.

What a mess of a show this was, and how quickly and almost completely it went wrong. After the wordless overture of ‘Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)’, a song from his 2003 album Michigan, Stevens turned to ‘Death With Dignity’, the opening track from his new record, Carrie & Lowell. He played it on a box guitar, unadorned and almost unaccompanied, and struggled to sing the high notes. Almost as if in response to that moment of vulnerability, the rest of the first half of Stevens’ set, taken entirely from Carrie & Lowell, unfolded as a kind of soft-rock opera. These brittle, painful songs were not built to withstand the rheumy keyboards, redundant drum fills and false crescendos they were loaded up with here. It was so badly done that I found myself laughing with embarrassment.

I did wonder, when Carrie & Lowell was released this April, how Stevens might tour it. Stevens is no stranger to songs of sorrow and loss, but Carrie & Lowell, an album about the death of his mother, is so chillingly bereft that it made me fear for the sanity of its maker. This show did no less. Stevens seemed exhausted, frequently rubbing his hands across his face, and his vocals, after that initial wobble, were filled out with obtrusive reverb. Grainy home videos, presumably of Stevens’ own family, were projected onto a backdrop the shape of a stained glass window. There was no escaping the solemnity of the material, but Stevens himself seemed determined to escape, determined not to hear what he was singing. His performance was one long retreat into bathetic grandeur.

After an hour or so he delivered us a rambling speech on mortality and God’s grace, and then he started to play us some old songs, mostly from Seven Swans, the album closest in mood to Carrie & Lowell, and from Illinois, his 2005 breakthrough. Stevens relaxed into these songs, playing with nuance and feeling, and his band followed his lead. There was a glimpse here of an altogether different performer, a performer I have seen before, who knows very well how to balance intimacy with embellishment. The contrast between this material and the recent songs was so marked that I wondered how deliberate, or how unconscious, was Stevens’ decision to effectively sabotage the majority of his set.

Much to my surprise, the evening ended with two standing ovations. Was it the difficulty of the material that was being applauded, despite how poorly it was performed? Were we rewarding Stevens’ bravery, when this performance was very far from brave? What did I want or expect – catharsis? A public breakdown? No. I simply wanted Stevens to do justice to the gravity of his material, and that he was incapable of doing so is more a cause for worry than disappointment. If only he’d stayed at home, or stuck with the old songs, instead of muddling his way through a set that was clearly too difficult, emotionally speaking, for him to execute.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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