Sufjan Stevens and Transcending Corny

Sufjan Stevens's beautiful Saturday night slot at Pitchfork Music Festival demonstrated how the musician's success comes from the fact that doesn't try to be anything other than his weird-ass self.
July 17, 2016, 7:46pm

All photos by Petya Shalamanova

The music Sufjan Stevens makes is very sad. But his Saturday night performance at Pitchfork Music Festival was joyous.

“I spent a year touring, doing songs about death and heartbreak,” the 39-year-old said to the crowd after the first song of his set, referring to his Carrie & Lowell tour last year that featured him essentially sitting alone with an acoustic guitar and breaking the hell out of everyone’s heart at every tour stop. “So now I want to have some fun.”

And, baby, fun was had. Here’s a taste of what happened during the hour and a half set. First, I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t the only who didn’t expect Sufjan to wear balloons as clothes. He did this in two different ways: once with a 40 feet tall balloon that sat on his head like a hat, and another outfit that covered him so completely he looked like a portable balloon pit. Moreover, there was also a lot of neon paint on both Sufjan and his band. At one point, everyone was also wearing angel wings. At another point, they brought out a bunch of those inflatable balloons you see in the parking lot of a used car dealership. This all occurred as Sufjan did his best Chris Martin impression and danced around like a disco ball. To close the night, Moses Sumney joined on stage for a beautiful rendition of Prince’s “Kiss.” The whole experience kind of felt like a live action version of Avatar. It was marvelous.

All of this—the costumes, the paint, the bright lights—is difficult to describe without it sounding like an incredibly corny performance that feels like watching the kids’ final night of theater camp. But what made the set so enjoyable is that there was no motivation to appear “weird” for the sake of being “weird.” This was genuine, and you could feel it. The over-the-top joy onstage was the perfect way to counteract the sad material of the songs.

I saw the Carrie & Lowell tour when it stopped in New York City at the legendary Beacon Theatre last year. It was harrowing, of course. Carrie & Lowell is a record named after his mother and stepfather, all the music creatively birthed from the death of his mother in December 2012. The songs are about his childhood and his mother—who suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism—who also abandoned him and the rest of his family when he was just a year old, and Sufjan’s contact with her was minimal until her death. The record is wonderful and complicated and strange and beautiful. He performs surgery on his deepest emotions, not only unlocking painful memories for us to get a sense of how he was raised and where he came from, but also artfully maneuvering ideas we all have but are afraid to talk about: suicide, heartbreak, violence, regret, failure, frustration. It’s mainly just him and an acoustic guitar singing a delicate falsetto. At times, it’s almost funny—“you checked your texts while I masturbated”—at others, it’s crushing—“what could I have said to raise you from the dead?” It feels so fragile, but somehow radiates confidence. As listeners, we connect with it because this is how we feel. Humans are complicated and, sometimes, life is really fucking hard. Carrie & Lowell is about that.

This wild and wacky live performance feels like Sufjan’s response to himself. Not only is he purposefully playing music that sounds happy, but also he’s embodying the rollercoaster that is life. Up and down, all the time. “With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” he told Pitchfork last year. “It's something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother's death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It's not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

Near the end of the performance, during the jubilant rendition of “Chicago,” a woman near me pulled out a light up bubble gun and started to send thousands of tiny little pops into the summer Chicago air. It felt cinematic, watching bubbles float above the thousands of people, the Sears Tower poking its head out quietly in the distance over the main stage. It was one of those moments that had me thinking about everything. My mom. My dad. My brother. My nephews. I thought about all the terrible things that have happened in the world over the last three weeks. I thought about all the terrible things that will probably happen in the world in the next three weeks.

It’s cliché to write that life is precious, but what else are we supposed to say? All things know. All things know.

Eric Sundermann has cried multiple times to 'Carrie & Lowell.' Follow him on Twitter.