It has been five years since his breakthrough full-length album, and about one year since he last toured. Outside Massey Hall last night, fans were almost giddy with anticipation as they prepared themselves to hear the Illinoise one more time.
After less than a decade in the music business, instrumental-folk-indie-pop icon Sufjan Stevens gave his legions of fans a pretty good scare last September when he stated: “I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public.”
If a thirty-four-year-old feels like they’ve reached their creative limit, it says a lot about how much Stevens has contributed to the music scene since his first album, A Sun Came dropped in 2000. To date he’s made an electronic tribute to the Chinese Zodiac, a pledge to devote an entire album to each of America’s fifty states (two down, forty-eight to go), a Christmas box set, a live concert/film screening hybrid exploring the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and running his label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, with his stepfather Lowell Brams.
All this, yet virtually no real original content since 2005’s Illinois, his most critically acclaimed and popular album. Well, all that changed a few weeks ago when Stevens released a brand new EP, All Delighted People, and just two days ago he released a new album inspired by artist and paranoid schizophrenic Royal Robertson, The Age of Adz, both incredibly well received by critics.
These new releases signal a growth in Stevens’s music, as he plays with more synthesized sounds yet maintains some of his signature multi-layered tracks and transitions from tenor to bass as fluid as the Michigan River.
As Stevens embarks upon a new phase in his still quite short career, no one is sure what exactly the future holds for this Michiganite Minstrel (but it apparently includes a ballet), nor were we sure of what we’d find on the stage of Massey Hall. What’s clear now is that we sure weren’t in Illinois anymore…
8:20 PM: Just settling in on the lower level of Massey Hall. The opening act, DM Stith is sitting on stage—just him, his guitar, and three microphones he’s using to loop sounds of him clapping as a background track to his song. The audience is needlessly clapping along with him, but hey, they’re in good spirits! Just one question, how many plaid-clad lumberjacks are there in this city? First grunge-rock, now indie-pop. Is there no relief?
8:27 PM: Aaahh, this is why Massey Hall is so great. Sitting back in a reclining seat, sipping a coffee from the Centuries Lounge downstairs, letting the armrest live up to its name, listening to a set by a young musician we don’t know yet but are really digging. And the acoustics in this place make him sound as if he’s mere feet away. We may as well be at a (good) open mic night at a cozy cafe.
8:36 PM: The lights go up and DM Stith rises from the stage, an honorable man staying true to his word that he’d play four songs then Sufjan will come on. The packed house’s applause is gracious, even a little louder than expected, but quick. Bring on Sufjan already!
8:59 PM: Lights dim! And…DM Stith comes on again? Oh, no, he’s just part of the band. The ten piece band to be precise, with two brass players, two drummers, two pianos, and two female space-age-looking back-up singers. Okay, not the intimate evening we were hoping for, but we’ll roll with it. The air is buzzing as Stevens takes his place front and centre, silhouetted among his band members in jeans and a button-down shirt. No biggie.
9:13 PM: Finally breathing again after about fifteen minutes of heart-stopping musical force coming from the stage. The ten-piece band isn’t what we were expecting, but if the whole concert is like that first rendition of “All Delighted People” (featuring the audience as the aforementioned Delighted People), the more the merrier. But the slower, softer pace of “Heirloom” on right now is a welcome change, and easier on the ol’ ticker.
9:30 PM: Sufjan explains how on this last album, he somehow confused heartache and love with the apocalypse (“Ever the drama queen”). “The end of the world ultimately means the end of the heart, luckily the heart is a strong muscle. As long as it beats, it breathes. As long as it breathes, it loves. My love’s for you.” And, cue audience outburst #1: “I LOVE YOU TOO!” Comedic genius!
And suddenly we’re thrust into outer space with the title track “The Age of Adz” as spaceships and foreign planets zoom by on the back screen and the brass and drums pound the chests of the audience. And, oh, the back-up singers are now back-up dancers, choreographed in unison and everything…and they’ve got streamers too? Hmmm…. Well, at least now their futuristic dresses and robotic movements make a little more sense (it doesn’t help that the rest of the fellows in the band are sporting jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers).
9:44 PM: We’ve moved from Jupiter to Heaven. The angelic sighs from Sufjan and his accompanists in “I Walked” are paradise.
9:51 PM: The audience is showing signs of weakness. There’s still the odd cheer and woop, but the level of excitement is nowhere near where it should be, or where it was. This is the eighth song of his new material. Sufjan, it’s cool that you’re growing and all, but throw us a bone here. It’s been out for one day! Give us some time to catch up!
10:07 PM: Sufjan says, “Oh no, Sufjan’s going to play one of those sad acoustic songs.” YES! Finally! Play one of the greats! Like “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”! Another new song. He sings, “Stopping you would stifle your enchanting ghost.” Okay, we get it, keep going with your set.
10:12 PM: Okay, we may not have the words memorized, but this stuff still sounds unbelievable at Massey. With the stage only full of three, the voices of Sufjan, DM Stith, and the Karen O lookalike back-up singer blend seamlessly in “The Owl and the Tanager.” Could easily be floating right now. Night, night…
10:19 PM: Oooh! Costume change! The girls are now wearing bright pink skirts and mesh tops—very space-age chic. “Impossible Soul” starts…
10:30 PM: “Impossible Soul” continues…and, my god, is that auto-tune he’s using?
10:38 PM: Sufjan’s now grooving with his girls, all three wearing sunglasses, one with a funny hat. They have to be kidding, right? And ow, those strobe lights sure sting the eyes. “Impossible Soul” continues…
10:41 PM: And he receives a standing ovation! Wait, it’s not over yet. Sitting back down…
10:46 PM: And “Impossible Soul” finishes! The attempt at a standing ovation is not nearly as enthusiastic as the one halfway through. Sufjan: “You’ve been a very patient and gracious audience listening to an entire set of new material. Thank you for coming to hear us play.” Aww, shucks.
10:49 PM: “CHICAGOOOOO”! The song that made Little Miss Sunshine a little bit brighter. Finally the buzz is back in the air, and for the first time since the opening song we feel the chills run through our backs and our knees get the jellies. And, cue the disco ball strewing lights across the theatre. Breathless again!
10:58 PM: First encore—a classic, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” Now we’re finally getting into this concert.
11:00 PM: Second encore—and “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” earns the proper standing ovation that was coming all along.
11:09 PM: Outside, the audience finally speaks up. “What was up with the auto-tune? That was depressing.” And our cue to end the evening.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.