Live: Sufjan Stevens Throws A Two-Hour Electro-Prog Dance Party At Beacon Theatre


Sufjan Stevens
Beacon Theatre
Monday, November 15

He wouldn’t be nearly as irritating if he wasn’t so good, this guy. As such, he is a whole lot of both. Look at him up there, crooning his hideously overstuffed and oft impossibly gorgeous orchestral-pop epics while looking like he got kicked out of MGMT for being too flamboyant, clad in some sort of Tron/Hypercolor/paintball-assailant getup (“I love your pants!” someone yells, as Sufjan is explaining how his grandfather was a Lithuanian onion farmer who shot lightning bolts out of his hands and feet) that, when accented by a headband and long ribbons trailing from his arms, makes him look like a . . . like a . . . neon Indian! Two full-kit drummers, horns, myriad noodling keyboards and guitars, the omnipresent meandering flute (ditching the flute would wipe out, like, 70 percent of the problem here), and the ever-present trio of twirling backup-singer Sufjettes. A complicated network of video screens that steal a lot of geometric-pattern squiggliness from MNDR and, during “Vesuvius,” seem to immerse the whole band in digital flames. It’s all too much, too much, too much, except the occasional moments when it’s just enough, just perfect, just sublime.

Last time I saw Sufjan Stevens he was singing about the BQE and surrounding himself with hula-hoopers, and I was calling him The Fey Highwayman. We’ve both evolved since then, I think. Still, if his new electro-prog epic The Age of Adz is, as it appears to be, a breakup album, whatever lover inspired it should put out an answer record simply titled I’m Sorry, But He Was Really High-Maintenance. The tracks therein are catchy and wistful and yet pulverizingly busy — “Too Much” is extremely well-named, a maelstrom of twee Midnite Vultures-style hedonism with a demure, tremendously appealing electric-guitar hook running through it, a lifesaving bit of simplicity amid so much stifling complexity. The stuff off his All Delighted People EP from earlier this year fares far better, delicate and intimate folk ballads with most of his backing crew stashed safely offstage. “Heirloom” is a quick acoustic-guitar sketch entrancing enough to trigger the loudest and most violent crowd-shushing “SHHHH” I have heard from the rapt dude sitting next to me; “The Owl and the Tanger,” rife with glistening piano arpeggios and quiet pathos, nearly steals the show. I am dismayed as I watch his band file back onstage afterward.

And yet. Adz ends with the meandering, interminable, 25-minute “Impossible Soul,” but live, despite pulling the show well past the two-hour mark, every part clicks — from the choral trills of “Don’t be distracted! Don’t be distracted!” to the alarmingly soulful AutoTune interlude to the full-bore dance party that suddenly erupts, the heretofore seated and demure crowd leaping to their feet and twirling around themselves as a ton of balloons descend from the ceiling, all while Sufjan pulls on an elaborate headdress and a pair of ludicrous pastel shorts and joins the Sufjettes in an interpretive dance of his own. Everyone looks and sounds and is acting ridiculous. It’s great. This guy needs a solo tour so bad, just him + a guitar + a piano, divorced from all the goofiness and focusing entirely on his rambling banter (“One of my recurring nightmares when I was a kid was a gymnasium”), his keening falsetto, and the laser precision of his lyrics: “Impossible Soul” ends with him moaning “I never meant to cause you pain/My burden is the weight of a feather/I never meant to lead you on/I only meant to please me however,” a nice echo of Weezer’s “Butterfly.” But the line only hits when preceded by 20 minutes of full-scale absurdity. The only thing more annoying than his Flaming Lips-style mega-wacky excess is when he manages to use it to such tremendous effect.

Critical Bias: I tear up uncontrollably whenever I hear “Casmir Pulaski Day,” which he didn’t play, but during the show’s more boring moments I learned that I tear up when I even think about “Casmir Pulaski Day.”

Overheard: “Everything they’re playing over the PA sounds like Grizzly Bear, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t actually Grizzly Bear.”

Random Notebook Dump: Further loopy banter, after explaining in detail how his next song is about the basic laws of physic: “I know it’s incredibly elementary-school-bookish, but that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”

Set List:

Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Futile Devices
The Owl and the Tanager
Get Real Get Right
All Delighted People
Enchanting Ghost
I Want to Be Well
Impossible Soul