Photo by Jules Minnis via http://public-domain.pictures/ (He was looking older and sadder than this…)
Monday night, 25 May 2015, we caught one of Sufjan’s shows at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Vivid Festival. Pretty amazing, he did four shows, I think all of them sold out.
I’ve been to at least three other of his concerts here in Sydney. The first time I went just because he sounded cool. I didn’t know his music. It was so long ago that he was cool, and somehow, strangely, a decade later, there are articles being written about he is now considered uncool.
In any case, I loved his music: haunting, simple, beautiful melodies. Even when ramped up into bigger production numbers, there was also a tunefulness that I liked, as well as his soft voice, sliding in and out of falsetto. He also is a supremo musician, and so quirky: his songs sometimes have crazy-long titles, and can be slightly impenetrable as a whole, yet with line after line that is simple and touching. He also doesn’t shy away from the big issues, while painting an intimate image of being held or the colour of the day, within questions about life and death and god and human nature.
Previous shows had him bouncing around the stage with back-up musicians and singers, I think they were dressed as cheerleaders once, a full brass ensemble and even he joined in with some crazy costumes on his Age of Adz tour.
But this was different. The album Carrie and Lowell is based on the death of his mother, who had all sorts of mental illness and who was an intermittent presence in his life. An interview with him said that he went off the rails after she died, indulging in substances and sex, and falling into grief and depression. So, this show was quiet, with vertical stripes of light behind the stage with projections of his mother and his childhood and the landscape of his youth. I think he played the whole album and nearly every song mentions loss, death and a mother figure, or his mother.
He spoke not a word to the audience until fairly late in the set, when he started talking about the way he’s been thinking of the different meanings of ‘occupation’ lately, how it has come to mean so many things, occupation as a job, occupying time and space, and yet its original meaning is to take something by force. Grief occupies you after the loss of someone, he said, and then spoke of the word ‘reside’ and how those gone reside in us: we are the way people carry on, we hold communities within us. I’ve certainly heard this idea before, but I liked his spin, and that he is honestly thinking this through, and that he shared it with us honestly and openly.
I also was struck by his voice. It’s as if he’s created his own instrument out of it. He doesn’t bother to sing full voice, but mainly whispers, mostly in tune, but sometimes slightly in between notes, speaking, murmuring, never straining: I found it kind of fascinating and with a timbre that is haunting. On his album, he sometimes doubles his voice to get it more strength; here, there was a crazy echo effect which I found sometimes too much, to be frank.
(As a side note, the Opera House is now allowing people to bring wine into the theatre in plastic cups, all through the evening, particularly noticeable during the quiet songs, the sounds of these stupid cups falling over and being accidentally kicked down a row. Crazy-making)
I also like that in some of his songs, he just simply trails off, where he’s said enough, or where words are inadequate to say anymore, so the song either stops, is silent, or moves into music without words. One of his early songs was quite extraordinary starting as a sad, gentle folk song, and quite late it suddenly became loud and happy, the same melody and lyrics but suddenly completely transformed. Near the end of the show, a wordless song grew and grew with a light show also taking off and I felt a bit like the Radiohead concert I went to a few years ago: it was an intense, multisensory experience.
The audience stood and cheered at the false end, and the encore featured some of his more well-known songs from early years, but I think all of us felt a bit of his raw grief and felt privileged for him to be open and share it with us. When I think of the word ‘artist’, I think about that kind of vulnerability.