Musical poetry: Sufjan Stevens sings haunting pop

Sufjan Stevens sings gentle, pretty pop tunes that seemed more closely related to a haunted art muse
Sufjan Stevens played the Palace in Albany Wednesday.
Sufjan Stevens played the Palace in Albany Wednesday.

Categories: Entertainment, News

The stage stayed pretty dark all night during Sufjan Stevens’ show at the Palace Wednesday. Soft, dark, and shrouded in mystery — you never saw what anyone looked like.

Stevens sang gentle, pretty pop tunes, but pop tunes that seemed more closely related to a haunted art museum than to radio play.

Early in the show during “All of Me Wants All of You” — his own song, not John Legend’s — he sang alone with his guitar. His band eventually seeped in, slowly. Using synthesizer and harmonizing with layers of angelic vocals, the song swelled into a wonderful, orchestral crescendo.

There weren’t many climactic moments like this. Instead the night was mostly about intimacy and theater. And death. Stevens’ singing is a bit like Art Garfunkel’s. He is not interested in sounding masculine, instead he sings poetry — the words have at least equal weight to the melody.

The sound was sparse. Spaces of silence were used between phrases, the band rarely filled the entire canvas. The audience, mainly 20-somethings who filled most of the Palace, behaved as if it was theater more than a concert, staying silent during the songs, and clapping enthusiastically and respectfully after the tune.

Stevens moved from guitar to piano to banjo, singing softly — never with a full throat — through all of it.

Death was everywhere in his songs. As sweetly as he delivered “Fourth of July,” which felt like a children’s melody, he aimed his pointed line at all of us: “we’re all gonna die.” He repeated the line again and again, then the band joined in and brought the song to a decent height. It was hypnotic and effective. It also felt like a psychedelic song from the Beatle’s “Magical Mystery Tour.”

He again sang without the band for “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”

Video played behind them, often showing nature — ocean, cliffs, etc. — and other times showing home family videos, presumably his own.

Toward the back end of the show some of the crowd loosened and yelled things between songs. But Stevens stayed in character and moved swiftly into the next song.

And then, suddenly, he spoke for the first time: “The first dead person I ever saw was my great grandmother. She was 97 and I was 7.”

He told us about seeing her body, describing her face and dress, which gave him a perception of death as “matronly and romantic.”

This changed as he got older and he found his dog dead on the street, then his pet rat died, then his cactus plant, then his uncle from cancer, and his “aunt from a lonely heart.”

He spoke some more on the topic and then said, “I started to think of death as a companion, like a friend you carry around.”

Songs that followed included “I’ll Do Anything for You,” “To Be Alone With You,” and “Dress Looks Good on You” and “Blue Bucket of Gold.”

This was pop as high art. The future may be in good hands with artists like Stevens, and fans who come out to see these shows.


Cold Specks, a Somali-Canadian singer, opened the show with a short but excellent 30-minute set.

She sang dark, ghostly tunes with soul — like a gospel Mazzy Star. A three-man band behind her, the group played smooth, deep tones for Specks to roll around in. She could subtly climb a scale or two within one vocal line without the feeling of over-singing. Lines like “raise the dead” and “bring the dead out, keep it brief” riddled through the songs.

Her band left for the last song and Specks sang a beautiful tune, alone. She even stepped off the microphone for the final verse, her voice easily carried to the back of the hall and held our attention like it was church: “Oh death where is thy sting.”

Hopefully she returns to Albany with a longer set. She was great.

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