It's a couple of hours before midnight in mid-October and Sufjan Stevens and his ten-piece band are nearing the end of an exhilarating set at Toronto's venerable Massey Hall. With its casually elaborate production values, the show is a dizzying feast for the senses. Two drum kits frame a stage comprised of guitars, synths, a piano, horns, and a pair of female back-up singers with choreographed dance moves. Behind and above them, a large screen flits with strange, playful film images (drawn from the work of outsider artist Royal Robertson), that sync well with their processed pop songs, all of which stem from the recent EP, All Delighted People, and the more perplexing full-length, The Age of Adz.
Front and centre, Stevens has been a calm presence, speaking candidly about the inspiration behind his new material, but otherwise standing serenely and singing beautifully. Then something unusual happens. The epic four-song cycle "Impossible Soul" unfolds majestically, and is about to reach its upbeat climax when Sufjan Stevens channels Kanye West, donning white, designer shades, awkwardly hip-hop dancing to the crazy beat, and singing in an Auto-Tune-enhanced voice. The uncharacteristically physical release draws whoops from the charmed audience but also marks a significant departure for Stevens.
"I felt like my music in the past has been so inward, internal, and about personal or historical narrative," he explains a week later. "It always had a kind of scholarship to it and didn't really require a lot of song and dance. But recently I've really been getting into the physicality of music, rhythm, sound, and movement. That song is a 25-minute behavioural, emotional therapy session in which I'm working through personal issues around loss and heartache, dealing with the cosmos, and existential kinds of things. So I think the dance, Auto-Tune, and those flourishes are just me working through all of the possibilities and searching for solutions."
Over the past decade, Sufjan Stevens has emerged as the most captivating young artist of the century. A Michigan native who calls Brooklyn, NY home, Stevens is a renowned multi-instrumentalist and composer who challenges himself with daring musical projects, like crafting albums inspired by each of the 50 American states (the project has stalled indefinitely after the monumental Michigan and Illinois), or last year's mixed-media expressway tribute, The BQE. He's a co-founder of the ambitious Asthmatic Kitty record label, which has fostered a community of unconventional artists, and his own endeavours ― with their rich pageantry and grand scale ― seem like a lofty quest for fulfilment, imbued with aspects of his Christian faith.
Yet his faith in himself has been wavering. Last fall, crestfallen fans heard Stevens publicly questioning the very act of writing songs in an age of digital singles and downloads, when he himself was so aligned with making thematically-based, artfully-designed, full-length works. So, beyond its very existence, much was made upon the release of The Age of Adz. The record lacks an obvious lyrical theme and all but abandons Stevens' orchestral, folk-pop framework for discordant, electro-glitch.
"Yeah, it was a deliberate decision to throw out the conceptual approach lyrically and just focus on the sonic exploration," Stevens explains. "And then, when I began to impose the song, I was very deliberate about not refining, editing, censoring, and shaping the lyrics into a conceptual narrative. I didn't want the material to be grounded in setting or history. I didn't want there to be characters, plot structures, and I didn't want to impose my kinda fiction workshop technique overtop of everything. I just wanted things to be really impulsive and a lot of the lyrics are then really deliberately mundane. They're very primitive, there are a lot of clichés, and it's very emotive and about sensation and feeling. I think that's how most people write music; they're writing from the heart."
Despite the distorted distance of its sonic landscape, The Age of Adz is indeed Stevens' most direct, self-centred album ― the one that reveals the most about his psyche. At Massey Hall, he thanked his audience for patiently experiencing a batch of new songs, suggesting that working on them saved his life over the last year. It seems the hyperbole was based in grim fact.
"I probably shouldn't go into the gory details of what I went through but I will say that I did get very sick last year and had some serious health issues that were really confusing and mysterious," Stevens confides. "For several months, I couldn't really work and was forced to focus on my physicality and restoring myself. So, The Age of Adz is, in some ways, a result of that process of working through health issues and getting much more in touch with my physical self. That's why I think the record's really obsessed with sensation and has a hysterical melodrama to it."
All that suffering has realigned Stevens' perspective on life, love, and the work that sustains him. "I feel so much more inspired and confident and eager to write than I did before. I think that the line of questioning that consumed me last year was debilitating and just created more obstacles. Now I feel like, it's okay to take stock and reconsider motives and go through that process with one's own work. But I was so obsessed with that existential conundrum of 'What's the point of the song?' that it was just ridiculous. Now I feel like I'm embracing ignorance in a way. Like, who cares? I can't explain what I'm doing; it doesn't make any sense to me.
"The life of the mind can lead to this debilitating maze or mental labyrinth, in which one is left wandering and scaling endless walls of existential questioning. I can't live my life like that. So I'm much more into just action now. That's why we're starting to incorporate dance into the shows because I just wanna move, I just wanna feel. I believe in sensation now more than I believe in thought."