Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell, is an intimate affair fraught with lyrics so personal that they send a little pang through your chest as you absorb them. So, perhaps it makes sense that when Stevens stopped by Toronto’s Massey Hall, he had the audience in the palm of his hand for the duration of his nearly two-hour set.
After opening with Michigan’s gorgeous piano interlude “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)”, Stevens worked his way through the entirety of Carrie & Lowell (albeit in a slightly rearranged order). The album’s themes of loss, nostalgia, and spirituality felt especially resonant in the live setting. This was only enhanced by the intermittent home movie–style footage playing on the diamond-shaped screens hanging behind the stage.
Stevens brought an effortless sense of drama to everything about his live show. He didn’t say a word to the crowd for the first half of the show, instead letting the heft of Carrie & Lowell hang in the air a little while longer.
Things then got slightly livelier as Stevens and his band transitioned into some older material, highlighting several tracks from fan favourite Seven Swans. Stevens himself also opened up with a couple of rambling, subtly funny monologues later in the show.
Another highlight came late in the night as Stevens dropped an unlikely, charmingly shambolic cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World” (a tribute to the night’s venue, which has famously hosted Young many times, including for his classic Live at Massey Hall album). Knowing the cover wasn’t going particularly well (though it was warmly received by the audience), Stevens took the opportunity to laugh at himself a bit mid-song. It was a nice, all-too-rare moment of seeing the rather serious, introverted Stevens loosen up.
After much hushed seriousness, the set ended with a heavily electronic, swirling wall of sound. It may not have been subtle, but it was an arresting culmination to all of the emotion that had come before.
Stevens’ encore seemed like a breather by comparison, and his final song of the night, 2005’s “Chicago” felt downright joyous in contrast. The horns and the enthusiastic crowd response made for a triumphant end to a sombre night.
The particular melancholy of Sufjan Stevens’ work has been cranked up to 11 on Carrie & Lowell, but in the live setting – aided by Stevens’ more heavily electronic re-arrangement of certain songs – the music is still devastating, but also manages to take on a new sense of life. It’s a cathartic experience, but if you’re along for the ride, Sufjan puts on a hell of a show.