I had always labelled Sufjan Stevens as a lo-fi indie pop artist in the same category as Elliot Smith or Iron & Wine. Tonight I discovered he is much more than that simple tag. He is a complex musician and artist and has evolved over the years to lean towards more avant garde/ experimental styles more in line with Brian Eno or Frank Zappa. In fact, I think Frank would’ve loved the costumes the 11-piece band wore. Typical stage blacks but plastered with bright fluorescent reflective stripes forming patterns, words and shapes in pink, yellow and green. They looked more like aliens then musicians….except for one of the keyboardists who I’m pretty sure is Jesus!
I haven’t really listened to much of his work in the last few years, catching onto his sound around the Illinois and Seven Swans albums where he wrote little softly sung acoustic songs about cities and relationships. Since then he has expanded his sound with keyboards, synthisers, drum machines and electric guitars. His songs have grown longer. As he mentioned on stage “when I was in college first writing songs using 2 chords that went for a couple of minutes. Now I write songs that go as long 20 minutes.”
Stevens manages to create atmosphere out of these soundscapes that tell a story. You get drafted into his performance and flow along with the music and the animations playing in the background. Finding his muse from an eccentric old religious man who had schizophrenia, the music reflects the inner workings of this delusional mind that has inspired him.
It’s not until you leave and head home that the magnitude of the performance sets in. A real visual and aural treat, it’s not surprising why he was invited out for the Sydney Festival.