By his own admission, Sufjan Stevens has been uncertain about what musical directions to pursue since his 2005 popular and critical breakthrough, Illinois. It’s not as if he’s been silent; his orchestral suite The BQE was an impressive demonstration of his sophisticated composition techniques. His new album, Age of Adz, is a bold attempt to make a dramatic break from the folk-rock that made Stevens music. Or is it a desperate, overwrought attempt to do something different? The new songs aren’t without merit, but too many of them are weighted down by too many layers of electronic bleeps and textures. The problem isn’t that Stevens has gone electronic. It’s just that his new songs are built up with such labored arrangements that the various instruments often seem to be clashing against one another. Perhaps that’s the intended effect, but it makes for some rather weary listening. (Stevens also released an “EP,” All Delighted People, which is actually longer than most albums.)
Backed by 10 musicians and singers, Stevens focused on these new songs for most of his concert Friday night (Oct. 15) at the Chicago Theatre. At a few points, he all but apologized to the audience for playing the new stuff. It was impressive to see the musicians pulling off these complicated songs live, but the songs still didn’t really click. The drawn-out “Impossible Soul” culminated (as it does on the record) with Stevens singing Auto-Tuned vocals, which just felt like a bad joke. (Stevens sarcastically introduced the song as “the adult-contemporary mini-series song,” which wasn’t too far off the mark.)
The highlights of the show were those moments when Stevens played acoustic guitar, banjo or piano. After a long wait for some songs from Illinois, the audience finally heard the band play “Chicago.” And then came an all-Illinois encore, with Stevens playing four songs with minimal accompaniment. It was a great reminder of what made Stevens’ music so compelling in the first place — and a stark contrast with the bulk of the music he’d just played. Before closing the show with his haunting song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Stevens thanked the audience for being “very patient.”
The opening act — and also a member of Stevens’ band — was singer-songwriter DM Stith. It was odd to see Stith playing in such a huge room, not too many months after seeing him play at a little Chicago art gallery. He sat by himself now on the dark Chicago Theatre stage, playing an acoustic guitar and using looping pedals to create a spooky atmosphere. His set was captivating, but too short — only four songs.
SET LIST: Seven Swans / Too Much / Age of Adz / Heirloom / I Walked / Now That I’m Older / Vesuvius / Futile Devices / Get Real Get Right / The Owl and the Tanager / Impossible Soul / Chicago / ENCORE: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois / Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother / Casimir Pulaski Day / John Wayne Gacy, Jr.