Other People’s Lives: Beholding Sufjan Stevens at the Academy of Music

On Friday, before Sufjan Stevens’s second performance at the Academy of Music in as many nights, I found myself in a pub across the street from the venue, talking Sufjan’s most recent record, the haunting and haunted Carrie & Lowell, with my mom. When I’d called earlier that afternoon to invite her, I mostly sold the show based on Sufjan the writer. She had never consciously heard a note of his music – it has, I’m certain, been played atmospherically in our house – but agreed to check it out after I used the words “sprawling”, “dense”, “religious”, “historical”, and “devastating” in less than two sentences. “That sounds great,” she said, then she asked how sure I was that Sufjan was actually playing the Academy of Music, a venue choice which would confound her until she heard the first notes of “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Popou)”.

For much of her life, my mom – her name, spectacularly, is Pam – has had pieces of her family go missing. Her mother got sick and suddenly passed when Pam was roughly my age. Her father followed that up by disappearing in mostly intangible ways. Years and a whole lot of imagined battle lines later, she still doesn’t talk to a good portion of her family’s underbranch system. All of this has left her with swaths of personal history and emotional hardwiring that are unknowable to her kids, and to me especially, since I was mostly undiscerning for the late-era awkwardness of her family’s now defunct Christmas party. These parts of her are still there, though, like rooms without light, not completely boarded up, but impossible to navigate, their architecture forgotten. It was partially because of them that I called her when I got the Sufjan assignment: I wanted to share in an experience with her that she would inevitably understand far better than I could. It’s also why, at the pub before the show, I caught myself warning her of the weight to come. “It’s going to be about his memories of his mom,” I told her, “but mostly about how abruptly they stop.”

Over at the Academy, we found our seats while Cold Specks, a project helmed by the levelingly-voiced Al Spx and named for an illuminatory passage from Ulysses, moved things in the room that rarely get any exercise. Her voice, which, that night, felt like its origins were somewhere less biological than her lungs, was buttressed by a shapeless-by-design backing band that crossed generational arrangements mid-set in the same way some bands might trade out guitars. Their set ended, however, with Spx alone on stage, stepping away from her microphone after pouring out the believer’s vulnerability of “Blank Maps” to riff on the lines, “Hands up/Don’t Shoot/I can’t breathe”, until they filled the massive space, making it abruptly solemn, like prayers said before a public funeral. It was a fitting introduction to Sufjan’s performance, a reminder that memories are often taken from us just as easily as they are lost.

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Following a lengthy intermission, the house and stage lights dimmed to a brisk dusk, and Sufjan entered stage right to his piano, the reception warm but unsure. Then, slowly flanked by his impeccably hired help, Sufjan re-oriented the hum of the crowd into Michigan’s spare and vaguely disquieting “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Popou)”, and the size of the room felt right. I turned to my mom, who had her eyes closed so she could listen to each chord as it swam through the room. “He sounds great,” she whispered. We were about two minutes in.

When Sufjan transitioned over to his guitar and into Carrie & Lowell opener “Death with Dignity”, home videos began playing behind him on paneled screens that evoked the stained glass ornamentation of some churches. Much of his set was arranged this way, to tug and poke at whatever faith you carried in with you, be it religious or romantic or familial. Eventually the single screen became a panorama of flickering memories behind him and left much of the stage in a blue relief. A graduation played on one side while a camping trip was detailed on the other, depicting a state of near constant joy, or, in other words, a fabrication.

The premise of Carrie & Lowell, and, by definition, Friday’s show, has been well documented. Carrie was Sufjan’s mother, who battled mental illness for a large part of her life and passed in and out of Sufjan’s adolescence and adult life sporadically and then not at all before her sudden death in 2012. Lowell is Sufjan’s stepfather, who married Carrie and brought her kids into his life, by way of summer trips to his home in Oregon, despite their mother’s regular disappearances. Lowell went on to head Sufjan’s record label, Asthmatic Kitty, he still does, but this redemptive narrative never comes up on the record. Instead, Sufjan inspects a familiar and unfillable void, one that formed along rolls of unused film and hours of unanswered phone calls. He wants to know what it means to lose someone who was supposed to own you but never did.

Many of the record’s best moments, then, come when he tries to cobble together new memories of his mother from whatever fragments she left him with. On “Should Have Known Better”, the record’s second track which was played Friday in front of some tidy Oregon shoreline imagery, Sufjan recalls his mother stranding him at a video store before carefully protracting her return into the birth of his niece. Taken live, the song never found the type of catharsis I’d assumed on the record; it instead played towards Sufjan’s anxiety over his place in another child’s life and the fragility of his relationship with her, as if his mother hadn’t returned through her but in him. These kinds of revelations happened regularly over the course of the night as various nooks and pits I’d missed while listening to this collection of songs alone in my car presented themselves in the company of hundreds. I found myself thinking of Carrie & Lowell as a record that requires a live listen, if only to be sure you hear every bit of it, since, unlike much of Sufjan’s catalogue, there are no sections left to excess.

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A good portion of the record actually has some room to grow, like the lyrically ruinous “The Only Thing”, which was made to gently bloom and wilt on Friday in a way that I can only describe as Malick-esque. The success of these songs, it should be noted, comes largely from the dissolution of clarity within their lyrics. Most start with a well-worn conceit, whether it’s the song for the deathbed on “Fourth of July” or the Love Story framing of the title track, and either refuse or are unable to reach that conceit’s logical conclusion. “Fourth of July” becomes a conversation between Sufjan and his mother’s corpse that further obscures where her ventriloquized voice ends and his begins while “Carrie & Lowell” pulls this same trick, only it’s his stepfather’s voice that’s getting absorbed. On Friday, these two songs were only separated by the relatively brisk “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, and their proximity allowed the record’s two title characters to speak directly to each other through some echoing imagery of birds in flight, one taking to the air in search of the other.

Most of the night, it turned out, would be spent searching, for Carrie, for answers, for a drink. The first ten songs Sufjan played after the Michigan interlude came from Carrie & Lowell, but his lack of digression – he didn’t address the audience directly until after he’d completed this stretch – is what allowed the songs to find a way inside dormant wounds to make them simmer and ache again. As a songwriter, Sufjan has spent much of his career retreating, famously and to fascinating ends, into state mythology and the catalogues of other artists in a prolific attempt to fashion an original voice. He’s developed characters, humanized serial killers, and painstakingly re-created historical events to an extent that would leave even Colin Meloy wondering what it was all building to. Friday night, when “Blue Bucket of Gold” reached a kind of free fall during it’s noise rock and Age of Adz-drawn climax, I think we got an answer.

When I first heard Carrie & Lowell, I told a friend, in what I’ll say was not a wholly complimentary way, that it sounded a lot like a debut. It still does now, in the wake of Friday’s show, but in a starkly different interpretation of the word. After hearing it live, and watching it echoed through encore performances of “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, Carrie & Lowell feels like a record, and a performance, that took two lifetimes – a childhood and a career – to be able to deliver. Where most songwriters entrench themselves deeper into recognizable characters over time until they border on self-parody, Sufjan has emerged almost completely from his own creation, dismissing the “State Project” lore as a joke and replacing it with a life-size version of himself, each darkened-room door left open, that we can choose to build a mythos around or try to understand on a baseline level of empathy. I believe both are possible, maybe even necessary, but the important thing is that the decision is up to his audience, and this feels like a major breakthrough, at least as far as literary-minded folk auteurs go. For now, the legends have been returned to the people.

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All of this, I think, is a long way of getting to the point, which is that Sufjan’s set Friday night gave way to one of the best conversations I’ve had with my mom about what separates us and why most of that separation is a good thing. On the drive home, after (accurately) marveling at the dexterity of Sufjan’s on-stage support, she looked straight ahead and said, “It made me think about everyone’s childhood, how they grow up, and where they end up. Like his, and yours, and also mine. How we all got there tonight. It made me remember a lot.”

Then she told me a story I’d never heard, and we talked about how lucky our own family had been so far, and then we sat in silence for a little, off on separate tangents: me thinking about how often she visits those dimly lit rooms inside of her and how easy their doors must be to accidentally open, and her likely down there re-organizing one of them. I found myself wanting to help, to ask about them, but knew she had probably already decided whether or not there was enough room in any for me.

So I waited for her to speak, and eventually she did. “You know, you’re probably going to have to make me a drink when we get home,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve lived a whole other life tonight.”

Photography by Tom Noonan

2 Comments

  1. Joel Martin

    April 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Beautiful narrative to reflect on the performance.

  2. Lauren S

    April 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

    Thank you for sharing your personal story, it brings a significant perspective to Sufjan and his albums that I did not see before.

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