Master of 21st-century indie Sufjan Stevens treated folk-loving Austinites to an apologetic, solipsistic expedition through his latest album, The Age of Adz.
It didn’t start that way, though. Stevens’ first song, “Seven Swans,” stunned with breathtaking visual and sonic mastery, matched only perhaps by the sleek architecture of the recently remodeled Long Center for Performing Arts. “Seven Swans” oscillated between a cacophonous, angry entry of accompanying brass and rhythm sections and Stevens’ hauntingly quiet banjo plucking, all while two digital screens superimposed fireflies and constellations on the stage’s 11 performers. Stevens had not only enhanced “Seven Swans” beyond its simple acoustic origins, he presented it as a fully immersive media experience.
But after that, the show got weird. The second song, “Too Much,” featured a stop-motion video reminiscent of an American Apparel ad, with Stevens posing in a faded neon Nike t-shirt in front of multicolored, geometric, screensaver shapes. Behind him, two Flash Gordon-attired backup dancers awkwardly grooved somewhat in sync with the music (and, for that matter, each other). The killer drumming and pitch-perfect trombones could not overcome the clear gestures of art school affectation.
The show continued to intersperse Age of Adz space odyssey sounds with solid folk tunes off of Stevens’ recent EP, All Delighted People. Stevens granted audience members a few quiet acoustic moments during “Heirloom” and some brilliant piano in “The Owl and the Tanager,” only to whisk them away into electropop replete with robot dancing and mini Casio keyboards. Standout track “Vesuvius” uniformly matched the rising action of the song with swelling horns and surging digital “steam” on the video screens, but it was an exception to the kitsch and self-indulgence that dominated the technically solid show.
Stevens has clearly grown tired of tender folk ballads about poor, cold people in windswept Midwestern states -– he said as much in a recent interview with The New York Times -– but his new ventures have fraught underpinnings. In one of the performance’s many explanatory digressions, Stevens cited Royal Robertson — a 20th-century folk artist, and (if Wikipedia can be trusted) a certifiably batshit loco misogynist — as a source of inspiration. Let me be more specific: Sufjan Stevens based his show on schizophrenic drawings by a man who called himself “Prophet” and thought he was a victim of a global female conspiracy. Perhaps we should be surprised that the whole enterprise didn’t turn out weirder.
“Impossible Soul,” the 25-minute, auto-tuned dance anthem from The Age of Adz, culminated the set with a space girl costume change, a 7-foot diamond-shaped screen lowered from the ceiling, and the drummer donning the head piece of a chicken costume. “Impossible Soul” may have been “psychotherapy,” as Stevens said in his introduction, but the treatment didn’t work for his confused audience, only a portion of which could halfheartedly rise out of their chairs to the song’s hyper refrain, “Do you want to dance?” Clearly, Stevens didn’t sell his old audience on his new goods.
By the time Stevens emerged for the encore, revisiting crowd favorites like “Chicago” and “The Dress Looks Nice On You,” the audience was completely lost in space. Even the ever-arresting “Casimir Pulaski Day” could not reclaim the touching human geography from which Stevens earned his fame. The venture into the electronic is an admirable attempt at musical innovation, but Stevens tries so desperately to be different that he forgets he is a great songwriter. Hopefully, he’ll remember in time for his next tour.
Sufjan Stevens tour dates
10/28 – Orpheum Theater – Vancouver BC
10/29 – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – Portland OR
10/30 – The Paramount Theatre – Seattle WA
11/1 – Kingsbury Hall – Salt Lake City UT
11/2 – Paramount Theatre – Denver CO
11/4 – Hilbert Circle Theatre – Indianapolis IN
11/5 – Bijou Theater – Knoxville TN
11/6 – The Tabernacle – Atlanta GA
11/7 – Thomas Wolfe Auditorium – Asheville NC
11/10 – Kimmel Center – Philadelphia PA
11/11 – Orpheum Theatre – Boston MA
11/14 – Beacon Theatre – New York NY
11/15 – Beacon Theatre – New York NY