Glory and ghosts: Sufjan Stevens at the Royal Festival Hall

When the lights go down and the band slowly walks onto the stage in the darkness, I’m struggling to work out which one of them is Sufjan. I know what he looks like, but there is no indication that he is special or different. It is only when the first piano chords are struck that I am sure his fingers are the ones pressing the keys.

Sufjan Stevens (Photo: Andrew King)

Sufjan Stevens (Photo: Andrew King)

Sufjan does not have the voice or the stature of a man who sings as he does. He is tall and strong. When he speaks for the first time – perhaps an hour and a half into the show – his voice is deep and assured. It is an almost comic contrast.

Because when he sings, the sound is that of a man retreating. It is more than a whisper, far less than a shout. It is more than an echo, far less than a statement. It is the sound of a person caught between the past and the future.

In a word, it is ghostly.


Vesuvius (Photo: Andrew King)

There are many ghosts and spirits in Sufjan’s writing. Even before his best album, Carrie & Lowell, was released this year, he had explored this theme many times before. He plays “Vesuvius” as if it is part of the album, although it was released two years before the death of Carrie, his mother. The arrangement is at first jarringly different – all glitchy electronica – but as the lyrics tumble out it’s clear why he chose this song tonight.

Vesuvius, are you a ghost

Or the symbols of light or a fantasy host?

… Sufjan, the panic inside

The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore

… Vesuvius, fire of fire

Follow me now as I favor the ghost

Vesuvius, fire of fire

Follow me now as I favor the host

… Why does it have to be so hard?

He is either using the volcano as a God-metaphor or he is contrasting the destructive fire of Vesuvius with the purifying fire of the Refiner. And then what of the phrase “murdering ghost”? Why would you “favor the ghost” if it is killing you? Elsewhere in the song, Sufjan sings of following the path that “leads to an article of eminent death”.

That eminent death is also what dominates his most popular song, “To Be Alone With You”. It’s a song beloved by music pickers on American comedy-drama TV shows and romantic films, yet a song that is as explicit about Sufjan’s Christianity as any he has written. In it, he describes the sacrifices made by Jesus:

You gave your body to the lonely, they took your clothes

You gave up a wife and a family, you gave your ghost

To be alone with me, to be alone with me

To be alone with me you went up on that tree

There’s that “ghost” word again. Again the meaning is doubled; he takes a euphemism for death and spins it around the concept of Holy Spirit as ghost. Christ’s death and resurrection are both a culmination and a harbinger in the New Testament, of promises fulfilled and promises yet to be kept. The “ghost”, the holy fire that burns within the Christian’s heart, is what enables a relationship with Jesus to exist, yet for it to arrive that same Jesus had to give up his own ghost.

Outro of Vesuvius - feat. recorder (Photo: Andrew King)

Outro of Vesuvius – feat. recorder (Photo: Andrew King)

No wonder he describes it as a “murdering ghost” in “Vesuvius”. Life through death is what this ghost brings, and so when he gazes into the fire he can sing “I’d rather be burned than be living in debt.”

The Royal Festival Hall is a large space. It is more associated with classical music than with modern forms. It is the kind of room you can hear breathing. It is a place that adds warmth to sound, but leaves each instrument, each chord and each note distinct.

The band Sufjan has chosen is as carefully composed as his music: these musicians’ precision, commitment and talent seems equal to his own. In this place we can hear what each is doing, what each is giving, to this musical monument. This is not mere competence; each person on the stage cares. It is almost as if they have experienced the same weight of grief and confusion as the man at the centre of things.

Carrie & Lowell is both broken and complete. It is the sound of a man raking through all the fragments of his life to find an answer. But this act stirs up as many questions as it answers. The points of exquisite pain on this masterpiece are at their sharpest when these questions are made explicit. And they appear periodically, because grief is not linear or neat or to be reasoned away. And they pour from Sufjan’s lips in a wave that is intense and tender and so raw.

What is that song you sing for the dead?

How did this happen?

What did I do to deserve this?

What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?

What could I have said to raise you from the dead?

Do I care if I survive this?

I wonder did you love me at all?

Friend, why don’t you love me?

How do I live with your ghost? 

Everything about Sufjan Stevens’ performance of this music is meticulous. Nothing is left to chance. I have never seen such seamless precision in live performance. Each song starts and ends neatly, even when accompanied by a wash of ambient sound or a clash of cymbals and percussion. Instruments are carried in and removed by quiet, self-effacing, careful stage assistants. To call them roadies seems entirely demeaning. Everyone moves around the stage in that way: quietly, cautiously, avoiding ceremony.

Reverence (Photo: Andrew King)

Reverence (Photo: Andrew King)

That’s ironic, given that the atmosphere all of this creates is exactly that – a ceremony. Each song feels like a letter etched into a graveside monument. But it also feels like a celebration. A recognition that life continues and that while the ambivalence Sufjan feels about his mother is real, it cannot control him.

It’s more than that, too. To this Christian unbeliever, it feels like a celebration that death cannot hold us. The ability to confront death and all of its pain comes from knowing that there is both something greater than death and something greater than each of our lives. Sufjan believes in a created connectedness that sings out from that stage. It is what enables him to recognise, at the end of “Fourth of July”, that “we’re all gonna die”. This coda becomes a refrain taken up by the whole band, repeated over and over again; it no longer feels despairing but triumphant.

In “Death With Dignity”, the first song on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan describes his mother’s apparition passing through him. It is painfully clear from the lyrics of almost every song on the album that his connection with her is so slight. The connection is real, literally umbilical. But his confusion is also real, as is the lack of definition; he never really knew her, and he knows it, and he’s almost manufacturing memories.  “Fourth of July” is the most excruciating example of this creative process, as he imagines a conversation between them that may never have taken place.

The first song I heard from the album was “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”. I have completely changed my opinion of the lyrics since I first heard it. At first, I read it almost as a recantation: Sufjan finding no help from the Jesus he had once loved and who he thought loved him. The last verse runs:

There’s blood on that blade

Fuck me, I’m falling apart

My assassin

Like Casper the ghost

There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross

The song is full of the addictions and damaging behaviours Sufjan has tried to get over the grief of his mother’s death. There are many allusions: “I’m chasing the dragon too far”, “I search for the capsule I lost”, “get drunk to get laid/I take one more hit when you depart”. Each is replete with double or triple meanings.

So when it comes to the final stanza, I’ve changed my mind. I might change it again yet. But it’s about that word “shade”. Earlier in the song he’s described how “I slept on my back in the shade of the meadowlark”. A meadowlark is a bird, the state bird of Oregon (and five other US states), in which much of the album is set. Even fully grown, it is only around 22cm long; it would cast only a small shadow.

So what does that word “shade” signify? It is another, older definition Sufjan is using. The word implies a disembodied spirit – a ghost. The “shade of the meadowlark” is just another way of describing the disembodied memories and fragments he is carrying with him through a dark place.

That last verse, read in this light, is turned upon its head. After a moment of weakness and honesty (the blood on the blade seems to refer back to “The Only Thing”, where he contemplates self-harm; ‘fuck me, I’m falling apart’ is as self-explanatory as anything on the entire album), he finds some kind of answer: his mother’s self-destructive behaviour will be the death of him too.

She is the smiling assassin, his Casper the ghost. But there is “no shade in the shadow of the cross”.

The concept of light runs through Carrie & Lowell and the rest of Sufjan’s work like a golden thread. It’s not surprising, then, that the photography and lighting at these shows were entirely exquisite. From the grainy home camera footage backing “Death and Dignity”, to the breaking waves behind “I Should Have Known Better”, there is no shortage of imagery to feast one’s eyes on.

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John My Beloved (Photo: Andrew King)

But the best moments come when there is simplicity. Sufjan, alone at the piano during “John My Beloved”, bathed in spotlights of each colour of the rainbow. Sufjan, gently finger-picking his way through “Eugene”, with a single solitary white beam playing over him. The beginning of “I’m Drawn to the Blood”, where his upward strumming is accompanied by jagged red backlights.

Nico Muhly (Photo: Andrew King)

Nico Muhly (Photo: Andrew King)

The culmination of this delicate display is “Blue Bucket of Gold”. As the song shifts out of its short verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern and into a prolonged, gorgeous ambient passage shifting between just two chords, Sufjan slowly leaves the piano behind, while Nico Muhly ascends to the heights to play the Royal Festival Hall pipe organ. As this transition deepens, the whole auditorium is illuminated solely by white uplights shining directly at two mirror balls. The rest of the stage is black. The overall impression is mournful, even funereal, but also starry. It is the visual embodiment of what is described in the song:

Once the myth has been told

The lens deforms it as lightning

… Search for things to extol

Friend, the fables delight me

My blue bucket of gold

Lord, touch me with lightning

The closing song on the album, it offers little closure. It’s a mixture of recognition that the lack of memories Sufjan has of his mother cannot be filled; that he cannot find in the fragments ‘things to extol’. Instead, he seeks out other ‘fables’; the blue bucket of gold refers to the Blue Bucket Mine in Oregon, a fabled site for a lost treasure.

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As the noise squalls around us, and deep bass notes rattle our bones, Sufjan stands quietly still in the centre of things. The billowing storm of sound is deafening and some people clearly don’t know what to do with themselves. But the band plays on. They are building a monument to a memory that is out of reach. After all the precision, all the neatness, all the clarity of expression, this feels like something else.

It is glorious. It is transcendent. It is a requiem.

The band takes a bow or three (Photo: Andrew King)

The band takes a bow or three (Photo: Andrew King)

NB: All photos in this blog post are credited to Andrew King Photography. If you like what you see, please look at his website.


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