Sound choices

Alex Schaaf

Wearing a Wisconsin t-shirt to the delight of a sold-out Madison audience, Sufjan Stevens strolled onto the stage of the Majestic Theatre Monday night and declared “Sup y’alls, I’m ‘Suff-jan’ Stevens.” And with that, he and his backing band were off to perform one of the best shows I have seen in a long time.
The world has not seen a proper full-length album from Stevens since 2005’s “Illinois.” Orchestral pieces and remixes have come since then, but this new tour seems to be the most promising bit of evidence yet that a new album will be coming before the end of time.
Stevens and crew brought out three new songs Monday night, and all of them featured a much heavier and darker feel while pushing the boundaries of what an acceptable song length is – most of these new songs pushed the 10-minute mark.
There’s something electrifying about seeing bands try out new songs on the road. The audience knows that they aren’t simply going through the motions, which may be true with the older songs that they’ve already played hundreds and hundreds of times on the road, and are playing more for the audience’s sake than their own. These new songs are still fresh, they still have room to grow and improve. Things could go wrong, or they could take a turn onto an unseen path that reveals something new.
Stevens and his band did not shy from bringing out these new songs, as they stretched each of them to its fullest length. Songs like “There’s Too Much Love” and “Age of Adz” delved into noise jazz freak-outs, with the horn players belting out scattered hiccups of melodies as the rhythm section deftly moved between time signatures.
Introducing “Impossible Souls,” Stevens said, “I’ve been accused of never writing a love song, and so this is my response.” Building from a simple progression on his Wurlitzer, the song veers into a repetitive jam under the phrase “don’t be distracted” from Stevens and backup singer Nedelle Torrisi of opening band Cryptacize.
These new songs showcased Stevens’ guitar skills in a way unseen before, as he showed musical chops well beyond his already known composing and arranging skills.
Beyond the new songs, Stevens pulled from his back catalogue to give the crowd a mix of “hits” and lesser-known but still familiar songs. “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy” were both performed alone by Stevens on acoustic guitar, and they brought as much intensity and focus as any of the more abrasive new songs.
The band closed its set with a somber, acoustic version of “Chicago” that left behind the triumphant drums of the original version for a more subdued, reflective take that left the crowd slack-jawed in awe.
Behind the music, Stevens was one of the most sincere performers I’ve witnessed. I wasn’t sure before the show, but now I know for sure – Sufjan Stevens is an actual human being, just a regular guy, not some sort of musical wizard that lives on a higher plane than we do.
His between-song banter revealed a very likable, modest guy who wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself. After one of the more ambitious new songs, he confessed, “Well that was tiring, right?” and joked, “Tonight is basically going to be a live workshop setting at your expense. Don’t be surprised when we begin stopping and starting songs over again and practicing our scales.”
If anything, the show Monday night revealed that Stevens has found his new way forward, and we can only hope that these new songs will find their way onto a proper album sometime in the near future.