Sufjan Stevens played last night at the Orpheum Theater in historic Minneapolis theater district. I’d been waiting since 2006 to see Sufjan play— so when I heard he was coming to the Orpheum with his whole ensemble, I bought tickets immediately. While I still feel Sufjan is an amazing talented writer and musician, the show last night was, in my opinion, a huge mis-step for him.
A lot has been said about his latest album, The Age of Adz, and that it features mostly electronic instrumentation. In my opinion, someone like Sufjan Stevens doesn’t need drum loops and auto-tuned vocals when he has a renown musical ensemble. But despite the strange choice, the music underneath is undoubtedly his— the lush arrangements, the fluttering instrumental lines, and the thoughtful lyrics.
The new record is based on the work of Royal Robertson, an American outsider artist that created visual and textual work about the end of the world and his vision of alien worlds. The show, despite opening with “Seven Swans” on banjo, was comprised entirely of this new music paired with a multimedia video projection based mostly on Robertson’s work. Clearly, Sufjan truly connected with this artist’s work— and yet, when he explained Robertson’s visions of foreign worlds, it was met with chuckles and laughs from the audience. The audience definitely didn’t comprehend or connect with this kind of material.
Because the music is often electronic, or is played by his emsemble, Sufjan spends a good portion of the show dancing around and singing into the microphone like a rock star. Electronic beats and dance rhythms are fine— but then what are we doing in the Orpheum Theater? If you want to do a radio-style dance record, take your show down to First Avenue and let us all dance. During these dancey numbers, the crowd was silent and still.
Finally the show ends without a single acoustic number. The encore begins, and he redeems himself with the audience by playing 3 of his older, acoustic songs. This was where the true magic of the show was. When he sang the sweet, soft notes of “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the crowd hung on his every note. Rapt attention from everyone in the sold-out theater.
Part of awkwardness last night is that the record came out only 3 days ago— most people bought tickets while still unfamiliar with the new music. Another part is that the whole affair was set in this very traditional theater setting. Yet another part is that the material on the new record is a little more challenging than the accessible “Illinois” that preceded it. But the biggest problem was the electric instrumentation and multimedia show. Sufjan doesn’t need to cover up his beautiful voice with a huge, loud spectacle. His vision gets lost amongst the electronic beats and projected videos.
The entire audience would have been happy with just Sufjan, a guitar, and a spotlight. His encore really made everyone leave in a good mood— but almost everyone I heard afterwards had strong reservations about the new musical direction they had just witnessed. I think all of us were just happy to see Sufjan in person, our love of his music is so strong.