To try and identify an overarching trend in Sufjan Stevens’ music catalog initially seems to be an exercise in futility. Starting with his dabble in electronica (Enjoy Your Rabbit), Stevens transitioned from religiously steeped folk (Seven Swans) to frenetic baroque pop (Illinois) before creating a whole new genre of disco art-folk (The Age of Adz). But, after seeing him perform last Friday at the UB Center for the Performing Arts in Buffalo, I realized that Stevens, and by extension his music, is a master of contradiction.
If you’ve ever listened to his work, particularly his folk albums, you might conjecture that seeing him at a venue seating 1,750 people might not do his more intimate songs justice. But, amazingly, Stevens was able to capture the raw and introspective emotion he infuses his work with and transfer it to the whole audience. Although clichéd, it felt like he was singing to only you.
He began the show with a beautiful performance of “Death with Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better,” the opening tracks to Stevens’ most recent album, Carrie and Lowell. That LP saw the artist eschew ambition for catharsis. The album features Stevens at his most personal, singing about his estranged mother and loving stepfather. The audience got that sense from the numerous pictures projected on the backdrop of the stage in the form of hexagonal prisms. These included family home videos, somber waterscapes, and slow-moving light beams. However, in his performance, Stevens was able to transform these personal songs into more singable, engaging tracks with the help from his wonderfully odd backing band.
The standout of the concert was Stevens’ portrayal of “All of Me Wants All of You.” This third track on Carrie and Lowell is a melodious, if unassuming number with mandolin strums and water-like reverb effects. However, the song metamorphosed into a disco-lite epic of sprawling, jam band proportions during the concert. Even Stevens, who comes across as a shy, slightly awkward introvert, was caught up in the groove, busting out a shoulder pop and foot shuffle every once in a while. The contradictions here were ripe.
After performing all of Carrie and Lowell and a few other deep cuts, Stevens performed an encore filled with some of his most beloved songs. As an homage to Buffalo, he projected the Bills logo onto the prisms, drawing a raucous, if ironic, wave of claps from the crowd. Firing through “The Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” “John Wayne Gacy,” and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the concert concluded with a performance of “Chicago.” This fantastic, ambitious road trip anthem is known for its energy and ardor, yet Stevens again choose to contradict the core of the song and strip it down. Opposite from most of the other concert, Stevens took an enthusiastic tune and made it bare, rather than build up its vigor. It was a perfect sendoff from the master of contradiction, Sufjan Stevens.