Sufjan Stevens is an artist who doesn't make many whimsical steps. Whether it be a proper record or a side project or a live tour or a Christmas album, each time Sufjan steps into the spotlight, you are almost guaranteed a proper glance at the current state of the artist. When we last saw Sufjan at the Paramount, it was in the psychedelic glow of Age of Adz, where he filled the theater to the brim with neon brilliance and synthesized "space invader" madness. When we saw him at the Neptune, it was a holiday extravaganza, complete with a Wheel of Christmas and 20 cubic feet of streamers. But this time around, Seattle anticipated a very different artist on stage. A couple months ago, Sufjan gave us Carrie & Lowell, a relentless outpouring of Stevens' heart onto tape in celebration of his mother recently passed. Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan minus the frills, minus the brilliant, mind-bending instrumental arrangements, taken back to the four track with the air conditioner buzzing in the background, and here, we've gotten the opportunity to completely rediscover one of our absolute favorite artists. Here at the Paramount over the course of two nights, Sufjan brought that unguarded, vulnerable presence to the stage for the most intimate and impactful tour of his life. With the help of longtime Asthmatic Kitty signee Helado Negro, Sufjan Stevens gave us a fearless, open-handed new look at the impossible soul guiding one of the greatest songwriters of our time.Since his last Seattle appearance opening for the incredible Sinkane at Barboza last October, Helado Negro has sure made the jump in terms of venue size! Roberto Carlos Lange, the Ecuadorian via Brooklyn, has been wooing us with his jaw-dropping vocal prowess and tantalizing experimental arrangements for years. Lange's 2014 LP Double Youth showcases this knack for melding styles together better than ever, with tracks like "I Krill You" dancing on IDM textures while evoking notes of latin and R&B throughout. Live, Lange operates a one-man table setup, kicking off each track before heading to the microphone to command it like an orchestra. Decorating the stage on both of his sides, he has two human disco balls, both moving slow under the low lights, sparkling in asymmetric directions as uneven arms and arched backs force the reflection away in chaotic patterns. Helado Negro opened up the evening wonderfully, with a subtle vivacity, tempting the sonic taste buds without jutting into the main course.
I can't even imagine the process of planning a tour for Carrie & Lowell. It's a record that puts Sufjan Stevens' soul on the line on every single track, digging up one painful memory after another, and toiling with some of the heaviest truths there are. Sufjan's tour starts by putting all 11 of the album's tracks on the setlist. It follows that up by adorning every song with a montage of old film from Sufjan's childhood. To make a record like Carrie & Lowell and turn it into an evening... it's something that takes an inner strength and a giving heart that only the likes of Sufjan could bring to the table.
What's most interesting about the evening is how Stevens has chosen to turn the mood of the record into the mood of the stage. About half of Carrie & Lowell's offerings have been given a full band arrangement, turning the second half of "Should Have Known Better" into a much warmer, almost Illinoise-esque folk track, and "All of Me Wants All of You" into an electronic odyssey with a three minute synthesizer solo for an outro (yes, Sufjan can totally rip on the synthesizer in case you were wondering). Some of these new arrangements were quite jarring in their new context. On stage, "Fourth of July" was less of a halfway point of no return and more of a climactic declaration. In all of these cases, it seems that Sufjan has had some time to contemplate the delicate chapters he penned on Carrie & Lowell and turn them outward, filling them up completely with love and grace and offering them to his audience to fill themselves. I, for one, wasn't expecting this. I was expecting to feel the weight of death on my shoulders with every single note of "Fourth of July". But instead, Sufjan's journey has led him to a new place of perspective, where the fact of death does not have to be the fear of it. Every scar of Carrie & Lowell has become a gift to give away on the stage.
Of course, while Carrie & Lowell was showcased front and center, this wasn't the whole of the evening. Sufjan dipped backwards in his category for any fan's wildest dream of a selection. With only one cut each from Age of Adz and All Delighted People, Sufjan mostly stuck to older material that fit the tambre of Carrie & Lowell while not necessarily emulating the mood. In the light of the new material, the beautiful declarations of love on Seven Swans sound brighter and more hopeful than ever. And without fail, the selections from Illinoise can never fail to warm the evening, even with stories of wasps and aliens and tears shed in vans.
Sufjan gave a real gift to Seattle with his stops at the Paramount last week. A second glance at Carrie & Lowell really does make it that much more of a hopeful, understanding record. The blessings that accompany self reflection and self knowledge have never been clearer with the songs of Sufjan Stevens. And while he is so often associated with and lauded for his most somber material, it's nights like these where you can't help but realize the true, evocative joy that comes with true understanding of the greater good. Sufjan Stevens reminds us to continue to give even when it hurts - after all, that's the only real love there is.
Today’s song, featured on The Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, is “Tonya Harding (in Eb Major)” by Sufjan Stevens, a single which is available via Asthmatic Kitty Records.
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