“We’re out of the vortex now.”
After an hour of prolonged devastation playing his latest record Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens finally lets the mask slip during the encore. The vortex – in the literal sense – refers to an extended coda at the end of his main set, swathes of crashing waves hitting a shore of organ and electronica as disco balls blend in with house lights inside London’s Royal Festival Hall.
But that vortex also signals catharsis. Anyone who knows the story behind what is, in our eyes, the record of year also knows how difficult it must be to translate what are essentially acoustic diary pages and reams of post-mortem closure into a cavernous space like this one.
To our surprise, that’s not something Sufjan Stevens, cutting as handsome a figure as always, is interested in. Instead his treatment of an intensely personal record matches his surroundings and becomes involving in the most unexpected ways. If Death With Dignity is a solemn start, he takes the opportunity to beef up tracks like All Of Me Wants All Of You into something much more robust and cinematic. And if that tight T-shirt looks like he’s been working out, then it might be because those broad shoulders are ready to carry the weight of these songs.
This approach could be a worry for some – after all, the confessions of songs like Drawn To The Blood might falter with anything other than the fragile approach assumed in studio. But it takes the devastating punches of The Only Thing and Blue Bucket Of Gold to make you realise that the pain in these songs is so profound and malleable, that they remain gut-wrenching in every form.
More to the point, Stevens uses the benefit of staging to maximise audience involvement – while we get an insight into his childhood via Super-8 montages, every so often the spotlights turn outwards to the audience. In doing so, it’s almost as if Stevens is releasing these loaded Chinese lanterns of emotion out towards us, as if to say ‘these are your songs now’. When that happens during an unexpectedly furious crescendo on album standout Fourth of July and the line “we’re all gonna die”, it’s hard not to feel completely immersed in his world and bathed in the maudlin acceptance of mortality.
That’s always been the beauty of Sufjan Stevens though – if he can keep an audience in a silent thrall with just his acoustic guitar, he can smack us around with the gutsy verve of any indie band (and what a band it is with Dawn Landes and Nico Muhly – stars in their own right – ringing in the closest of harmonies as if bound by blood). The long encore reminds us just how special this man’s career has been, and it makes sense that one Age of Adz song he punctuates Carrie & Lowell with is Vesuvius. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” he sings. That heart is what brought him here, and that heart has him well and truly writ as legend.