No one notices the slight soundtrack being piped through New York's Beacon Theatre until just after 9pm, when it cuts out with a sharp jolt of static. The charged babble is instantly hushed, and all eyes turn front. After a prolonged half-minute of the house lights remaining on with little activity on stage, scattered confusion begin to cut through the anticipatory quiet. Nobody quite knows what to do.
Considering it was likely caused by a stagehand unwittingly treading on the wrong cable, it’s an accidentally apt opening to the evening. The autobiographical narrative of the latest Sufjan Stevens album is now well documented – his attempt to figure his emotionally complex relationship with his emotionally complex mother in the light of her death in 2012, and the sudden, alienating emptiness that her passing plunged him into.
When the curtain does rise a few minutes after this false start, it’s a much plainer Stevens that emerges. The man who left the stage four years earlier as the winged, erudite leader of the cacophonous, glorious extravagance that was the Age of Adz tour returns to a solo piano in a single spotlight, dressed in black t-shirt and jeans, for the gentle opening echoes of “Redford”. What follows is one of the purest, most affecting shows you could ever hope to experience. There are few musicians who could ever aspire to the heartbreaking serenity of Carrie & Lowell, and fewer still with a hope of ever re-creating it live.
There’s no attempt at distraction, however – with ten of the album’s eleven tracks performed straight through, albeit it in a slightly different order. The effect of this is like re-visiting a beloved collection of short stories – you appreciate both the discrete beauty of each element alone, but gain a whole new view on the cohesive body in a new context. These stories come further fleshed out by tall diamond video screens that line the back of the stage – projecting childhood videos and wooded landscapes that evoke the Oregon summers that inspired much of the record.
Although C&L is unified in its hushed production style, the songwriting is as inventive as ever. Backed tonight by a five-piece band, its imagination is apparent – such as the warping of “All Of Me Wants All Of You” from soft strum into pulsing crescendo, and the insular “Fourth of July” into a furious swell, with the record’s subdued refrain of “we’re all gonna die” becoming a resounding chant. For all the darkness and sadness of the album, it would do it an injustice to not recognise these other dimensions – we may have subscribed for a downer of a Saturday night, but Stevens is too playful a musician to not let in a little light.
Though as mesmerising as these grander moments are, their greatest impact is the dynamics they give to the tranquil ones that sit alongside them. Stevens may have always had a penchant for the mythic and the metaphorical, but tonight is as brutally direct as the record it heralds. The haunting sorrow of the album’s content is wholly mirrored in his angelic, plaintive delivery – which cracks in all the right places. These songs should not be easy to sing, and the odd imperfections that sneak in only accentuate the tender humanity of the bloke that’s singing them. Lines with the heft of “Fuck me, I’m falling apart” are difficult enough to process as a listener, let alone to be said out loud by the person who wrote them.
There’s an audible exhalation of breath across the room as tracks like “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” close out, and not a few tears shed. It’s a heavy, but truly beautiful experience. It’s the only thing that breaks the inter-song silence until the C&L suite is complete, when Stevens exhales himself. The few words he allows himself sum it up best: “It’s a real struggle, but a real pleasure to be sharing these songs with you all”.
The comforting touchstones of older songs from the folkier end of his back catalogue – “The Dress Looks Nice On You”, “To Be Alone With You” – are again unsettled by the final piece of the Carrie & Lowell puzzle. “Blue Bucket of Gold”, on record a sombre closing statement, is a full-band wash of sonic imagination – a near-half hour morph from ghostly quiet to a raving maelstrom of sound and noise and colour and disco balls (no joke), until finally giving way to the first of the evening’s two lengthy standing ovations.
As a exploration of loneliness and raw melancholy, Carrie & Lowell is an astonishing document. But its most enduring element is the possibility that it provides for processing its own grief – the feeling at the end of tonight’s show is not one of unanswerable depression, but intense catharsis. There’s even room for a smile, in Stevens’ closing words (“thank God for friends and family and lovers and colleagues and companions”) and the most fitting closing song possible – the urgent, jubilant celebration of rebirth, regrowth and freedom that is “Chicago”. It’s a liberating, uplifting end to a faultless presentation of one of the very best records that will be released this year.