Art is expression. It’s an expression of what the artist is feeling, observing, studying or experiencing. The audience who receives the artistic expression is then tasked with interpreting it for him or herself. In the case of a painter, the audience looks at the painting and decides how it makes them feel and in that moment gets a glimpse into what the artist wanted to express with the painting. The same goes for music. When a musician performs a song, the audience experiences the music and lyrics (if there are any) and reacts to it. However, the audience is usually at the mercy of the performer(s) when it comes to what the expression will be. The audience does not get to request that the painter’s next painting be similar in tone and appearance to the last painting he or she produced. The same goes for musicians. We as the audience are not in charge of what direction the musician takes his or her music. We are simply presented with the artistic expression and asked to experience it. Expression :: Experience.
When Sufjan Stevens released his breakthrough album “Michigan”, he won a legion of fans based on the lush orchestrations, tender lyrics and creative concept of the album. Those fans voraciously devoured his next offerings as well, caught up in the impossible dream of an artist releasing 50 albums of state-themed songs. When Sufjan decided to leave the concept by the wayside, many fans were saddened, but they knew that Stevens would still be making beautiful music even if it wasn’t about Oregon or Texas. Following the release of “Illinois”, Steven seemed to withdraw from the spotlight a little. He released an album of Illinois B-sides (that sounded like B-sides), a charming Christmas box set of previously recorded material and then fell silent for 3 years. Reports suggested Stevens was giving up music entirely in favor of creative prose. Interviews seemed to support those reports as Stevens’ expressed frustration with his own musical endeavors. When he finally surfaced again, it was with a music and film project commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (“The BQE”). After performing the piece live to rave reviews, he released a CD/DVD set of the performance. The largely wordless album was an exploration of classical music and visual art and drew rave reviews. Still, rumors of a new “proper LP” persisted.
This fall, Stevens self-released a digital EP of beautiful, sprawling compositions entitled “All Delighted People”. This, at long last, seemed to be a sign of what was to come: long form, lush pieces of music that captured the spirit of the earlier albums and pushed the form to its limits and beyond, complemented by shorter acoustic numbers. Then, not long after, the arrival of a new LP was announced.
This past week, Steven released “The Age of Adz” – a jolting, glitchy, noisy, fussy and dark album of songs about lost love and the attempts to recover from it. This was not what the audience was anticipating. In the 5 years following the release of “Illinois”, Stevens seems to have gone through a lot of hardship in his personal life and, rather than retreat into library research for a new album as before, he mined the dark catacombs of his own depression and emerged with a gem of an album unlike any of his others. If any similarities are to be found, you’d have to dig back to Stevens’ first two albums, both of which feature elements of experimentation and electronics. If anything, Michigan/Seven Swans/Illinois may have been a detour rather than a new route.
Which brings me to last Saturday night’s concert at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. Coming a mere 5 days after “The Age of Adz” was officially released (pre-orders were downloaded two weeks ahead of the release date), the show was sold out and the crowd was hungry for the first big concert for Stevens in Minneapolis since 2005. Anticipating a night of songs about states and swans, the crowd was unprepared for what would transpire.
The show opened with a gorgeous 4 song set by Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty label-mate D.M. Stith. Stith used an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal to create layer upon layer of sound for his soft songs. He seemed the perfect opener for a show centered the vastly layered compositions of Sufjan Stevens. Unfortunately, Stith began his set a little before the published 8pm start time and much of the audience wasn’t even seated for the set. After the show people were still asking “Who was that opening guy?”
Finally, Sufjan emerged to hearty applause and picked up his signature banjo before playing a rocked up version of “Seven Swans”. The audience immediately noticed the large band backing up the frontman. Two full drums sets were placed on either side of the stage, facing each other. Two guitarists and two female singers/dancers in goofy silver costumes were placed behind Stevens and a brass section resided on the right back wing along with an bearded electronics player. D.M. Stith played an upright piano to Stevens’ left. A new addition to center stage was a small synth station for Stevens himself.
After finishing the opener to much applause, Sufjan took the mic and explained that they would be singing some songs about “love and heartache”, but they would make it more enjoyable with some “funky dance”. From there, he launched into a set that consisted of almost every track from “Adz” with some of “All Delighted People”’s minor tracks interspersed. The crowd was caught completely off guard. As Sufjan himself engaged in the dancing and video of Stevens voguing like a model were projected behind the stage, the audience began to squirm a little. As the set went on, some audience members walked out of the show. Others sat in stunned silence, engaging in nominal applause after each song. The mood in the air was clear: the majority of the crowd did not know these songs and many didn’t like them. Stevens must have felt it too, commenting at one point “‘everything’s happening so fast. Just an hour ago he was playing the banjo.’” The dissonant, pounding energy of these brokenhearted missives was not what many in the audience were there for.
This became quite clear as Steven came to the end of the 25 minute song “Impossible Soul”. Stevens and the band got tripped up in the closing sections, had to stop and reset before finally finishing the song with a grin and a shrug. Then the piano played the opening notes to the song “Chicago” and the audience erupted in wild applause for a familiar and popular song from the back catalog (and probably Stevens’ best known track). The band played through the song with much energy and left the stage to a thunderous ovation. After the prolonged applause, the band returned in part and played three more old, softer songs for an encore and said good night. It was a whispering end to a screaming show.
As the audience filed out, comments circulated such as “that was terrible”, “I didn’t get it”, “I wish he would have played [Song XYZ]”. It was clear that many had been ambushed by the new material and felt cheated. One published review of the show called it “one of the most disappointing, messiest shows I’ve seen in years by a performer I actually enjoy and admire.” Other reviews echoed that and stated that the music was often off key or just bad.
I’ve probably already tipped my hand, but I’m going to argue that this was a fantastic concert. Stevens’ new material obviously grew out of a personal, emotional experience. It’s the most personal music that he has ever released. In fact, portions of the songs on “The Age of Adz” contain actual self-talk where Stevens implores himself to pull it together, to follow his heart and to overcome the panic inside. This is raw, emotional exposure that is not found on any of his previous works. I think that Stevens’ dark night of the soul resulted in him banishing his usual routine and taking an artistic journey in an attempt to come to terms with his losses.
This brings me to the question that I’ve been pondering ever since I shuffled out of the Orpheum with a legion of grumbling fans all around me: Does an artist have an obligation to give his audience what they want? Do they owe us? In some ways that is a rhetorical question, but in other ways it’s not. When a musician plays a concert, is he or she actually obligated to play the hit, crowd-pleasing songs for the people who paid money to hear them? I would argue that while the audience has paid to attend a show, they have no right to demand an artist perform to satisfy their specific desires. Like I said in the beginning: artists present their expression and the audience must simply experience whatever that expression may be. In this case, Sufjan Stevens is in a place in his life where he needs to express these darker, difficult things in song and he has chosen to do that in a very different way than before. Some fans (myself included) will applaud his expression as admirable in its honesty and in the choice of timbre. Other fans will be disappointed that Steven has changed direction, but they can only affect their own experience and not his expression. Stevens, along with many artists before him, have asked their audience to experience with him something that changed his life by experiencing a change in his art. That’s putting a lot of faith and trust in your audience, but I believe that Stevens has earned that trust.
So while it’s unfortunate that many in the audience had not had a chance to listen to “Adz” before attending the show, that does not mean that the show was bad. In fact, hearing these songs live has given me much more of an appreciation for the album itself. I find so much more feeling and poetry in these glitchy, dissonant songs than I had found at first listen. And to those complaining that some songs were off key, you’ll learn that those same songs have dissonant, “off-key” elements on the studio recordings as well. Basically, the band was incredible in reproducing staggeringly complicated songs live. I still can’t get over how tight the two drummers were throughout the set.
I should also mention that, having seen Stevens live twice before, he has come a long way as a stage man. At previous shows he had a definite air of subtle stage-fright as he mumbled song names into the mic and looked down more than up. On Saturday, he launched into a prolonged monologue about the schizophrenic painter who inspired many of these songs (Royal Robertson). He chuckled and threw out one-liners between songs. Oh, and he danced a lot and put on goofy hats. This is light years away from what I’d seen from him before. This is an artist growing into his own skin in more ways than one.
In conclusion, Sufjan Stevens put on a fantastic show. The artistry and vulnerability that he put on display in those 2 hours may not have looked like many in the audience thought it would look, but it was overwhelmingly beautiful in its way. Perhaps if more people had had a chance to listen and react to “Adz” beforehand things would have been different. Perhaps people would actually have been dancing in the aisles rather than sitting in shocked silence. “Adz” has garnered many positive reviews since its release, so maybe the fans will catch the spirit of the album and love it. Maybe this will become a new standard in the indie music community. Just as Sufjan Stevens popularized the previously ignored banjo as a instrument in indie music, maybe young musicians will look for creative ways to use autotune and processed beats in their own music now too. I don’t know. What I do know is that I believe artists succeed most when they push themselves the furthest. When I hear an album that sounds exactly like the album before it, I am slightly disappointed. When I hear an album that sounds like the artist was desperate to express their joys and sorrows while also pushing the limits of their sound, I experience those joys and sorrows with them and am deeply grateful.
What do you think? Do artists have an obligation to please their concert-going fans? Should artists play sets that may not please fans and could even alienate fans going forward? I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.
Full Concert Setlist:
Age of Adz
The Owl & the Tanager
Get Real Get Right
Now That I’m Older
Concerning the UFO sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Casimir Pulaski Day
The Dress Looks Nice on You