The good news was that after a prolonged absence and a frightening illness, the gifted songwriter was back. The bad news, Stevens has no interest in continuing to develop his former songwriting style. Gone were the banjos and acoustic guitars and in its place the new material was chock full of synthesizers, drum machines, and AutoTune. It was as if he had suddenly discovered robots, outer space, and aliens all in one day.
Steven, however, seemed well aware that his fans would be hesitant about his new direction and set about reassuring them, explaining that for this album he wanted to get away from a formal writing structure completely and begin with just primitive, raw sounds and layer a song on top of them.
If there were any doubts about the new direction, they were crushed in the first five minutes of the set even for the most hardened skeptics. When Sufjan Stevens builds a new world for his audience to swim in, it's near impossible to resist. With eleven musicians all dressed in black and grey including two very talented dancing backup singers and spectacular visual effects, it was clear that Stevens wanted the crowd to be as fully engulfed in his vision as he was. Refusing to settle for mediocrity, the sound (which he conducted with precision at the center of the stage) was immaculate, a carbon copy of what was on the record.
Also striking were the all-encompassing visuals: each song had a theme that was broadcast behind the musicians. Whether it was the pixelated volcano in "Vesuvius" ---for which a screen was lowered and a wall of flame with rivers of lava projected upon it -- or "Get Right Get Right" full of aliens and spaceships and planets, or giant photos of dancing people in "Too Much," each time the lights were dimmed and your imagination was forced to wander off and consider new realities.
"For those of you who are completely freaked out by this," Sufjan announced a third of the way through the set, fully aware of how this new sound might scare his hardcore fans "Here is a palate cleanser," and he launched into "Heirloom" an acoustic number off of his latest EP All Delighted People.
He should not have been so worried. What makes Sufjan Stevens so irresistible is not just his lovely voice and his banjo, although those play a large part.
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What is exciting about him is that he is one of the few musicians who is intensely intellectually curious about the world around us, a very rare commodity in a songwriter these days. Whether it's a states history or the Brooklyn Queens Expressway he always finds a muse to use as a vehicle towards conveying his broken heart. The Age of Adz is not different.
During the set Steven explained how this new album was inspired in part by a schizophrenic artist and self proclaimed prophet from Louisiana named Royal Robertson, who went mad believing that his wife had cheated on him and that his twelve children were bastards. Consumed by numerology, the Bible, and symbols of the occult Robertson painted his visions of spaceships, prophets, and Amazon women to cope with his loneliness. Fascinated by this man's story Sufjan learned all that he could about him and then wrote songs full of paranoia, masochistic heartbreak, madness, and the end of the world.
The night culminated with a twenty five minute opus which Stevens introduced smiling "like a psychotic behavioral treatment, but in public. I'm going through some things." There aren't many artists out there who can hold a crowd's attention for twenty five minutes straight, but this sold out crowd sat riveted to their seats, all the way through "Impossible Soul" in which he presents the tug and pull of a relationship in five movements.
Stevens closed the evening with his hit "Chicago", giving a flood of warmth (after the sterilized synthesizers) that got the audience to their feet. Coaxed back on stage by an encore, Stevens paid homage to his fans and broke into the popular songs off Come Feel the Illinoise including "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland," "Casmir Pulaski Day," and "Jacksonville." A gift to the people who sold out two nights at the Wiltern because they believed in his vision and intoxicating obsessions. Perhaps the one lone fan said it best when he yelled out into the darkness, "Never leave us again!"