July 17, 2016


Dear Sufjan Stevens: De-Clutter Your Life (Or At Least Your Live Show)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Dear Sufjan Stevens,

Hey there! Big fan. Hope all’s well. Before anything else, a quick thanks for making my favorite album of last year. There were a lot of great albums released last year, but Carrie & Lowell was the one that was the most moving, for me. Thanks for that!

So, I just watched you headline Pitchfork Music Festival on Saturday night, and I’m writing out of concern. This is the fifth time I’ve seen you in concert, and it was by far the most perplexing performance of yours I’ve witnessed. You ended with a Prince cover while wearing a helmet sporting several balloons. You said at the beginning that you wanted to make this show upbeat after a year of touring behind such a sad record, and then played your saddest song ever, “Fourth of July.” You broke out the vocoder, again! What’s going on, Suf? Are you okay?

Let me level with you: I’m not a fan of The Age of Adz. Your 2010 electronic opus was fiercely beloved by a lot of critics and a few of my stranger friends, but personally, I don’t get down with the glitchy beats, pseudo-spiritual mantras or noise experimentations, especially when compared to your brilliantly intimate lo-fi. I’d rather watch you wax poetic on a banjo instead of physically smash that banjo, put on a giant disco-ball jumpsuit, climb up a shimmering ladder and sing a 25-minute anthem, as you did on Saturday night. When you focus on The Age of Adz in your live shows, you—one of this century’s most accomplished folk-leaning artists—go maximalist, surreal and goofy. You take your sound and inject some theatrical goo in its center.

And that’s okay! Not everything is for everybody. Lots of people like The Age of Adz, and just because I don’t doesn’t mean that you should neglect it in your live set. I saw you perform in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2011, a few months after The Age of Adz was released, and you wore the same Broadway-ready wings and showcased the same showy choreography as you did at Pitchfork Fest on Saturday; I hated that show, but a lot of people around me in the crowd were riveted. That's great! You decided to make a radical departure from your sound and I respect that, no matter how the result affects me. 

Eventually you returned to the personal storytelling of your breakthrough work, and that was great, too—especially when you started playing Carrie & Lowell live in 2015. You put the costumes away, kept the lights low and presented the material without contrivance, and when I saw you play that stripped-down set last year, I thought you were extraordinary. Then, for a few spot festival dates in 2016, you brought the Age of Adz set pieces back and have been dancing around like a loon again. Personally disappointing, but understandable—after spending a year swimming in the sorrow of an album about your deceased mother, I don’t blame you for loosening your tie for unfamiliar crowds at Coachella, Sasquatch! and Boston Calling. You do you, Sufjeezy.

But here’s the thing, and the reason I’m writing to you today: At Pitchfork Fest, your headlining set was neither a somber folk showcase nor grandiose pop spectacle. It was both, so really, it was neither. There were moments both breathtaking and totally ridiculous, and they didn’t fit together whatsoever. Your exploratory approach spoiled the experience.

As lovely as it was to hear “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” on a picture-perfect Chicago evening, using it to follow “Vesuvius” was too jarring to enjoy. Watching the incisive “All of Me Wants All of You” performed with wacky dance moves made both the song and dance moves come across as disingenuous. The confessions of “Chicago” were sandwiched in between the gaudy “Impossible Soul” and a silly cover of “Kiss,” sapping the anthem of all of its emotional energy. Seeing a pattern here? 

I don’t like your Age of Adz stuff, but at least a full-on Age of Adz show wouldn’t have felt so disjointed. It was as if every moment of pleasure was also an occasion to wait for the other shoe to drop. 

All veteran artists have to compress different eras of their careers into an hour-plus live show, while often trying to satisfy the highest number of people watching. You admirably attempted to offer all sides of yourself at Pitchfork Music Festival, Sufjan, but in the end, nothing came through clearly. There were isolated bursts of exhilaration during Saturday night’s show—I even thought Age of Adz’s “I Walked” sounded like a highlight!—but no connective tissue. How can you expect an audience to settle into the groove of a performance when you’re not offering any rhythm?

Don’t let one part of your catalog comprise another when you have so many distinct poses that you could make in any given performance. Commit to one presentation; refuse to dilute your sonic blueprint; pick a lane, bro. There’s no one else in the music world quite like you, Suf, and even if one of your albums drives me nuts, it deserves to exist in its purest form. 

Yours in gratitude,

Suf-Fan No. 1