Sufjan Stevens’ concert in Milan: A celebration of life, here and now

Sufjan Stevens, already mentioned on sussidiario.net at the release of his album Carrie and Lowell, played at Teatro della Luna in Milan as part of his European tour dedicated to his latest work on September 21. During the concert, the artist presented his album “Carrie and Lowell” in its entirety. Eleven songs that relate to the history of his family and especially of his mother’s. She died in 2012; the artist had a troubled relationship with her because of her problems related to drugs and her bipolar disorder.

The theme is certainly not trivial: his last album is in fact a sequence of bare and essential songs that deserve to be listened to carefully from beginning to end. Sufjan Stevens is certainly a controversial character, in a continuous research. Christian, but without a definite place of reference, he has both physically and musically wandered among the various traditions of the States, restlessly taking part to their various music festivals. Musician as much culturally equipped as limited in his vocal range, in his Milan concert he showed how far his approach is from the one of the vocal talents that aim at conquering the public’s interest in a matter of seconds. As his trembling voice opened the first verse of the evening, through his vocal limitation he unintentionally expressed something that goes beyond music.

 

A palpable tension could be felt throughout the entire concert, starting with the introduction, when he played the delicate instrumental Redford from his album Michigan. James McAlister, Ben Lanz, Casey Foubert, and Dawn Landes were on the stage with him. The atmosphere became solemn. The album’s execution run tirelessly and without interruptions, with songs that blended into each other, played as flawlessly as wholeheartedly. At times the poetics is close to Nick Drake’s (I am thinking of a few  passages from the album Pink Moon in particular). “I forgive you mother but I long to be near you,” he sings in the second song Death with Dignity, while in Blue Bucket of Gold, the last song of the first part of the concert, a long instrumental piece serves as tail, taking us into a suspended and dreamy place.

 

Sufjan declares in an interview: “I didn’t know (my mother) well in a lot of ways, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye on the last track with articulation. So I quit playing piano and vocals and just stopped. I wanted to surrender her to the beyond with noises that sound bigger than just me.” In a sense, this feeling of surrender was evident for both the audience and musicians. When a musician has a story to tell, he is forced to take a step back and remain in the shadow both physically and musically, so that the the song itself has the opportunity to emerge. At the end of this first part of the concert, Sufjan declares: “Sorry for only playing sad songs tonight. I must say that for me bringing these sad songs in concert and sharing them with the public night after night has been a positive process. Tonight we are here to celebrate life and what is here, now: our hearts beating.”

After a brief pause, he returns on the stage, this time to perform five songs he had recorded in the past. It seems that these songs are not put together in an artificial manner to form an encore: they are rather just another aspect of his story.

I take home two lessons from this shy musician. The first is that it is possible to overrun  genres. One can use very different elements of the recent musical history and make them coexist in a harmonious beauty, as it happened tonight, also thanks to the band that supported the artist. The second, and more crucial, is that music can still be important, and not just a background noise or a playlist that one can keep scrolling. The drama of life, which emerges in some great songs, cannot be broadcasted on the radio or in talent shows. It needs a gentle, dedicated, and exclusive space, and it requires that one devotes attention to it. Like when one reads a poem, or when one says: “I love you”. You cannot do these things it in the midst of all the rest.
I am sure we will hear more about Sufjan, in who knows what kind of new musical adventure.

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