Thursday 17 January 2008
The Forum, Melbourne
There’s barely enough time to order another
Instead, here he is, bounding across the stage and taking up position amongst his nine-piece accompaniment. There’s no ego on display. And in a way it makes sense: for all his eccentricities, Sufjan is down-to-earth and self-effacing and all those other adjectives that describe otherwise normal people that happen to get famous and are enormously talented.
You might expect someone else, going by the excessively long titles of some of his songs. But there’s not an ounce of pretence on his wispy frame; no ironic posturing, no cooler-than-thou hipsterism. In a way, Sufjan is more like the naïve cover art found on his albums: all unaffected charm and honest enthusiasm. When he clips a pair of large, papier-mâché wings to his back and joins a performer mid-set to dance with an electric hula-hoop, somehow it’s endearing; you cheer along and clap, you don’t roll your eyes.
There’s a genteel restraint to him, too, that carries over in his voice. Between songs he tells anecdotes about his childhood in
Some songs are quietly devastating – like the sparse and aching “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” to which Sufjan plays guitar over piano accompaniment – and others are vibrant, life-affirming: the euphoric pop of “
The band doesn’t get carried away by improvisation, though: a mid-song jam session breaks out during “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and is pulled back on track to a slower tempo, the vocal harmonies are crisp and tight, and Sufjan sings through cupped hands into the mic for the song’s second movement, lending his voice a tremor and reverb even more mournful than the recorded version:
I cried myself to sleep last night / And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window…
Behind the band, a collage of video footage is thrown onto a screen. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of abstract images and music is merely pleasant; a fancy music visualizer that builds to the sounds played on stage. During “All The Trees…” a young boy (Sufjan?) plays in a field of tall grass in grainy Super 8 footage, faux-home video style. The footage lends a slight menace to the song, a menace that is always lurking around the edges of Sufjan’s music, softly insistent.
Religious themes frequent the narratives of his songs and though he doesn’t preach, Sufjan can make music a moving, spiritual experience. Throughout the two-hour set, the crowd is hushed and reverent – only breaking their silence with the kind of ecstatic applause usually reserved for urging on an encore. It’s not just the gratification of a long drought broken by rain – this is Sufjan’s first Australian tour – it’s the sheer joy of hearing beautiful music. The band sounds amazingly bright and clear, each component is isolated and hangs in the air: the vocal harmonies sit atop powerful layers of guitar chord and drums; you can break down the brass ensemble and listen to each instrument individually. The gig’s acoustics do great justice to the recorded experience of Sufjan’s music.
Emotionally, the experience is strangely rewarding and though I cannot claim to be any closer to deciphering his often opaque lyrics, the concert brings me closer to an appreciation for the spirit of Sufjan’s music. It is of a world governed by natural beauty and wonderment, of memory, guilt and anxiety – but ultimately one of joy in the present moment and hope for the future. I thoroughly enjoyed the present visitation of this winged messenger and I look forward to his future return.