Live at Prospect Park
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
It was in the middle of the fifth song, “Now That I’m Older,” that Sufjan Stevens forgot his words. But it was hardly a fumble. Just a pause, a heartfelt apology for forgetting, and, “Let’s go to the part where I’m not singing.” He picked up at the high-pitched hums, and at the end of the song, by way of abstract explanation for what had happened earlier, offered up this brief truism on life and getting older: “Youth is pleasure, age is wisdom. You need a bit of both, I think.”
By now, just past 11am on Thursday morning, photos and reviews of the last Age of Adz concert are already ubiquitous on the Internet. You probably have already seen and/or read how glorious and neon and celebratory it was. For this reason I feel less obligated to give you details on the copious amounts of glow-in-the-dark tape, (some of which made a flaming eyeball on one of the butt cheeks of Sufjan’s pants), the super stylized choreography, the set list, the interplanetary backdrop, and the soggy, rain-soaked but enthusiastic crowd. I feel it’s more necessary to reflect.
The Age of Adz is the most lyrically direct, maybe the most emotionally vulnerable, album that Sufjan Stevens has made. When I first listened to it, on a five-hour bus ride that I had sort of dedicated to the task, what struck me immediately was the use of “you,” the direct address. Where much of Stevens’ music has been third-person storytelling, or maybe metafiction, this album’s lyrics shook off all the covers. The music suddenly fell almost wholly between a “me” and a “you”—and not between two points on a colorful scrim with Stevens’ own gaze peeking through from time to time. Whatever technical innovation was on the album became sort of secondary—no matter how bombastic the electronica could get, the words were always more jarring, more plain, more unambiguous and more universally home-hitting on themes of love and pain than the synths could ever be.
Because of the directness in his lyrics, over the course of this last year’s tour, Stevens’ presentation had confused me. What was with the sudden interest in space and the future? Who was Royal Robertson, and why was Stevens so obsessed with him? And, c’mon, were those interpretive dance moves really necessary, or were they just awkward? Why did everything have to be so goddamn abstract? If this was just Sufjan Stevens riding the cool train now, I was certainly not on it.
When he forgot his words I began to understand things differently.
The first track on Age of Adz is a spare, beautiful, and wrenching folk song called “Futile Devices.” At one point it goes, “I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard, so I don’t say it at all.” On the second track, “Too Much,” which promptly explodes with new, synthetic sounds, the chorus goes, “There’s too much riding on that. Too much, too much, too much love.” Some people, when what they mean is especially hard to say, don’t say it at all. Or they end up saying the opposite of what they mean (you know, playing it apathetic or cruel). Stevens took another approach. This album sounds like, lyrically, he said exactly what he meant. Imagine, then, how scary that is. How the hell do you justify saying exactly what you mean to “you,” whoever that is, via your life’s work, your profession, your art? You can tone it down, you can obscure it—or you can say “screw it,” go all out, cover it with neon streamers, turn yourself into a giant balloon animal, add flashing lights, studio apartment-sized bouncing beach balls, crazy geometrical shapes and claim it fully as your own.
At points throughout Stevens’ set, like when he played the utterly gorgeous and simple “The Dress Looks Nice On You” off of Seven Swans for an encore, or in slower parts of “The Age of Adz,” it became quiet enough for the audience to suddenly hear (and feel) the falling rain as percussion. It became sharp and bright and still enough to see the vapor rising on his breath. It was in these moments that the heart of the performance would expose itself—not only what Stevens was saying, but how delicately and intentionally he was saying it.
I’m pretty sure that the last song Stevens played at the last Age of Adz show has, at times, served duty as the definitive anthem of a generation. At the first plucky, resonating notes of “Chicago,” the crowd erupted with joy, and so did the stage. At one point, “Chicago” goes like this, the italics where Stevens made special emphasis (though the crowd sang along for the entire thing):
I drove to New York in a van, with a friend.
We slept in parking lots. I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
I was in love with the place, in my mind, in my mind.
I made a lot of mistakes, in my mind, in my mind.
When Stevens made that “mistake” and forgot his words, compared to how crazy articulate he was throughout the rest of the evening, compared to how singularly prolific and eloquent he’s been throughout his musical career, it seemed to be the problem of a person for whom these words mean more to than most. The theatrics, the catharsis, the neon, the neon, the neon—in the end, they all read as symptoms of a struggle with such direct expression, and other things, like the strange, nervous system-attacking virus he dealt with while writing the album. But that’s precisely the cause for celebration. Without triumph over struggle, what else is there to celebrate? What else is art, if not a way to sublimate pain?
Photos by Sydney Brownstone