I WAS THERE: Sufjan Stevens Beckons Us To Come On and Feel The Ill Noise At Bowery Ballroom

[Photos by Andrew Parks]

By Arye Dworken

Five years ago, Sufjan Stevens promised to press one LP for every state in the union, as backed by his banjo and towering orchestral pop pieces. As he’d soon admit, the plan was both preposterous and inspiring.

“I may regret that,” Stevens told The Washington Post in 2005,  “but it was probably necessary for me to acknowledge and put into words my intentions and my propositions. I think sometimes it’s better for us to do that, even if it’s detrimental.”

Detrimental? Hardly, if you consider the promising direction he’s now headed in. Last night’s Bowery Ballroom show featured four new multi-movement songs by the soft-spoken Brooklyn songwriter, and what do you know? They were easily the evening’s highlights. Take “There’s Too Much Love,” which chased a lightly-sweetened refrain with sheets of unsettling metal machine music. That’s not all–the spacey backbeats and freewheeling trumpet solo in the instrumental mid-section could have been ghost-written by the Flaming Lips.

“This one’s long,” Stevens said earlier in the night, before sparking the 12-minute “All Delighted People,” “So it might be a good time to go to the bar and get a drink.”

If you took his advice, you missed out on a strikingly beautiful ballad that initially featured a crooning Stevens accompanied by a dusty tremolo guitar effect, but then progressed into a surprisingly blatant Simon and Garfunkel reference (“Hello darkness, my old friend, it breaks my heart/I’ve come to strangle you in spite of what you’d like”). Thereafter, “Delighted” blossomed into a jumbled free-for-all, which inspired one drunken audience member to heed the chorus’ advice (“all delighted people raise your hands”) for the next five minutes. Take it from us: don’t be that guy.

“Impossible Souls” is probably the closest Stevens will ever come to aping R. Kelly, with its sensual pace and come-hither-vocals. The fluttering melodies of Cryptacize‘s frontwoman, Nedelle Torrisi, served as the perfect accompaniment (“Don’t be distracted,” she encouraged on the sidelines), the feminine foil to Stevens’ tender maleness.

“Age of Adz”–or “Victoria,” as it’s debated over the Internet–is a spacey suite unlike Stevens has ever recorded before. His echo-laden vocals, coupled with an ominous backdrop of circuit-bending sound effects, was much more stirring than the softness of the song that preceded it, “The Dress Looks Nice On You.” One of the young musician’s talents is crafting songs that have an unpredictable trajectory: some of the best songs on Illinoise and Michigan completely avoided conventional song structures. And with the new material, he’s allowing songs to breathe in a way that’s natural and invigorating. Hearing these songs edited for an eventual recording would be a serious shame–this phase seems like Stevens at his most inspired.

The rest of the evening devoted to material from Illinoise and Seven Swans, all of which still play as they have before on previous tours. They’re still inspired and occasionally chilling, but we’ve been down that acoustic road before. It’s time for a gloomier, less predictable folk singer, 48 remaining states be damned.

Sufjan Stevens @ Bowery Ballroom, 10.5.09:
The Mistress Witch from McClure
Impossible Soul
All The Trees In The Field Will Clap Their Hands
Come On! Feel The Illinoise
Casimir Pulaski Day
All Delighted People
Size Too Small
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Age of Adz, or Victoria
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!

There’s Too Much Love