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2010’s Biggest Musical Disappointment

My Facebook friends will probably recall my drunken post-show rant after I saw Sufjan Stevens at the Wiltern back in October. I will quote and paraphrase what I posted then, so this may not be news to some of you. I should start at the beginning of this story: the new record.

The Age of Adz seemed to be pretty divisive among listeners, but, despite its change in direction, I enjoyed it a great deal. I found the album to be his most personal — and possibly his best — with songs like “I Want To Be Well” and “Age of Adz” saying more about Sufjan than any of his previous efforts, not to mention the grand, artistic gesture of the 25-minute album closer “Impossible Soul.” The lyrics are heartbreaking and introspective and I became transfixed upon my first listen. I sent the following tweet after a couple play-throughs: “I really wish I could be horribly dumped by the love of my life right now so I could totally relish in the new Sufjan record. It’s so good.”

The first song I heard from the album was the dizzying yet melodic and catchy “Too Much.” The song had so many layers and intricacies that I couldn’t wait to see how he would pull it off live. Needless to say, I should have stayed home the night of the show; his garish performance and bewildering monologues changed the definition of the new songs and took something away from me (and kind of made me feel like an idiot).

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Don’t get me wrong: musically, everything was near-perfect. Sufjan has always assembled talented musicians for his shows and is always on point, himself. I’m also a sucker for multiple drum kits, but that’s a different story.

The problem was that Sufjan’s antics and the show’s production were unabashedly self-indulgent. The Williamsburg hipster girls awkwardly dancing around in spacesuits and the floor-to-ceiling video screens were totally distracting and downright silly (particularly the Sufjan-as-Morrissey leather jacket fashion photos and the over-the-top “THIS SONG IZ ABOUT FIRE!!!1! DID U NOTICE??” visuals during “Vesuvius”). I nearly lost my shit when Sufjan began performing his own choreographed moves along with the two girls. It was like he was intentionally mocking his own songs. I think this photo should tell you everything you need to know about what the show looked like.

Worse than the misguided (to be kind) stage show, his speeches to the audience are really what killed it for me. In his first words to the crowd, he literally called himself a prophet and referenced the coming “end times.” Later, in a nearly 15 minute prattle about Royal Robertson — who he explained was a fellow prophet, but then didn’t understand why the crowd was laughing so hard when he said Robertson was schizophrenic — he again made mention of the end of the world and said that he believes his personal heartache causes natural disasters around the world. He said when he would get sad a snow storm would begin and when his heart would get broken an earthquake would happen and he knew it was because of his pain. When everyone laughed at him and he stared stone-faced back at the crowd, it became very clear that he was not kidding. Even then, however, I’d just dismiss it with, “Okay… dude lost his mind. I’m mostly fine with that.”

The deal breaker came as he continued rambling on for another several minutes telling the audience how, in writing the new album, he was focused mostly on the “sound of things” and the “idea of sound.” In doing so, he said, he had given up on “meaningless” things like song structure, standard instrumentation, lyrics, and poetry. To me, I took that as, “Hey, you know those emotional connections you made to my songs? Remember how you really felt what I was talking about? Didn’t you love how the composition, style, and sound of the new songs was so deliberate and impactful? Yeah, well fuck you!”

I was in total disbelief, but that quickly turned to outrage. How dare he? He really did strip me of my respect and enjoyment of the new songs, which isn’t fair for an artist to do. Even if the songs mean the exact opposite thing to Sufjan as they do to me, he diminishes his art by destroying my connection to it. I will concede the fact that his words might have come out totally wrong, but what he said that night, combined with the dancing and video projections, was indeed “too much.” I had to leave the show early before, god forbid, he ruin “The Dress Looks Nice on You” by saying that banjos are a social construct or that he’ll never play “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” again because B minor is the devil’s key.

I didn’t listen to any of Sufjan’s records for months, but in writing my “Best of 2010” post, I put on The Age of Adz to see what I thought of it now. You know what? I still like it. There are some very well-written songs on there and, poetry or not, the lyrics still mean something to me. However, I can’t separate the album from his performance and discussion of it — his words are forever stuck in my mind — and as a result, I found myself moving on to another record after only a couple tracks. I anxiously await his next album and hope that this was all just a phase. In the meantime, The Age of Adz is going to be collecting some digital dust in my iTunes.

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