Just last month, midweek, I was at the top of a limestone auditorium, somewhere in the Perth hills: a warm sunset and the flicker of city lights to my left, and a blurry landscape of trees to my right. The pervading smell of wood-fired pizza made me regret my hasty dinner at home and the noises of people settling down, arranging pillows and clinking glasses, were soft and friendly. I felt my shoulders relax.
Red Hill Auditorium is an impressive concert venue – somewhere I’d be happy to visit just to eat dinner on the steps. The people there were gathering to hear Sufjan Stevens perform his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, and, boy, did they look good doing it. I have never seen a better dressed crowd. I had to poke my sister, hissing things like, “Look at that jumper,” (deep reds, purple and black, fuzzy with pompoms) and “Oh, she looks great” (red lip colour, navy dress, gold earrings). Young men wore the pleasing uniform of hipsterdom: well fitted chinos with elasticised cuffs, shoes without socks, a snug grey tee. I bumped into an old colleague of mine with her signature pink hair, freshly redone, ombre this time. She was surprised that we had run into each other, me emerging from a growing crowd of around two thousand as one of the first people she meets. I wasn’t surprised because I had already found large groups of people I knew and it felt normal by then. It seemed like every few moments there was a familiar face and an “Oh, hi!” to be exchanged. Because of course they would be there. It was only natural. Ten minutes in and I already felt like I was in church.
The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name
Like a Father he led community water on my head
And he called me “Subaru”
And now I want to be near you.
My pink-haired coworker, quick-witted and good at her job, has expressed some surprise in the past at my being in church. And my husband goes to church? And I went to church before I met him? And back then we went to different churches? She’d picked at my story with some scepticism in our staff tea room, like a detective reviewing a statement from a dubious witness. She had met other religious people but they were … older (said with meaning). And now, though I’m not sure if she realised it, she was at a concert of an artist so beloved by the Christian community of generations X through Y that he is revered practically as the C. S. Lewis of indie music, and that, depending on where she sat, she would be surrounded by the very people she couldn’t quite trust to actually exist.
I’m drawn to the blood
The flight of a one-winged dove
How? How did this happen?
Bathed in red light, he began with Redford (For Yia Yia & Pappou) from Michigan. Nine or ten thin, tall, stand alone screens lined the back of the stage. Throughout the recital of Carrie & Lowell that followed, home videos danced on those screens, broken up by the black gaps of nothing between the panels. They played like incomplete memories. A young woman at the beach, kids on trikes in the driveway, a birthday cake with candles I think. Later those screens would peak ecclesiastically instead of ending in a blunt square, and the projections of beaches and sunsets spaced out between each black column would take you into some cloister or chapel at the edge of the earth. He emerged from behind the piano after Redford, and took his place centre stage, guitar in hand. He was wearing what I assume is one of many prized trucker caps and an orange tee shirt that would make him fluoresce at times in the bright light show. One song rolled comfortably into the next, executed with ease and familiarity on his part, clung to with fear and awe on ours. As an audience member one felt compelled to give each second your complete attention, as though if you were to break concentration it might all fall away like a pumpkin carriage at the stroke of midnight.
My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings; illumination!
For those unfamiliar, the album is about Stevens’ mother, and the brief blessing of a contrastingly functional stepfather, and everything that happened next. It’s heartbreaking, intimate, and exposed, like you’re listening in on someone’s therapy session. But it also, somehow, feels like your therapy session.
Every song from Carrie & Lowell had its moment and we counted them down. This album has been uniformly well received and it was a given that we would know each song by name. “Only two left,” my sister whispered to me, about an hour in. It seemed to be a family affair for a lot of people. At least two of our acquaintance had been joined by their parents and looking over the audience I’d seen a familiar red-headed clan of brothers and sisters strewn across a few steps. We were all there, grieving with him and looking at our own grief.
Drag me to hell in the valley of the damned
Like my mother, give wings to a stone
It’s only the shadow of the cross
The last song from the album ended, and as if to revive our hearts the band leapt unexpectedly into “Vesuvius” from Age of Adz, which was met by gasps from people around me, and then “Futile Devices” which ended with an absolutely giant sound that shook my bones and swelling abdomen, such that I had to resist Googling, “do very loud noises affect unborn babies?”. It made everyone stagger into a standing ovation. Getting up I felt like a newborn fawn with shaky legs. And after that it was clear that something had lifted, and it seemed like the formal part of the service had ended. The congregation were free to engage in a dialogue with this man, leading from the front, and to sing along while he played old favourites from Michigan and Illinois. In between songs he spoke about life and death, and though promising to play happier things, each time seemed to realise that this next song, too, was about death. He even played his “murder ballad”, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, during which if you do not cry/sob it is scientific proof that you are a cyborg. That song, and also “John The Beloved” from this new album, get me every single time. I think it’s because what they both seem to be saying is that more often than not my hot indignation and resentment, even if it comes out of true and necessary grief, is so ridiculous, so arrogant, and so out of line. How can we be bitter when we’ve all caused pain, all grieved Christ?
I am a man with a heart that offends
With its lonely and greedy demands
There’s only a shadow of me
In a manner of speaking I’m dead
His address to the crowd ends on a note of appreciation for life’s moments, and an exhortation to embrace and relish them. I personally find the rousing call to live each day as if it were your last extremely stressful (just reading the back cover of that John Piper book, Don’t Waste Your Life, makes me hyperventilate), and at first I thought that’s what he was doing but I think I’ve changed my mind. That sentiment would have been a trite life lesson indeed after having got an entire crowd to sing, “We’re all gonna die,” along with him earlier in the evening.
The show seemed to be an expedition into the murky world of pain, death, grief and meaning, trying to reconcile our hurts with the fact that after we suffer hurt we end up dying. Sufjan Stevens’ music has always been starkly accepting of life’s realities. He seems to be able to hold things in his hands without always passing judgement on them or making excuses for them. He can sing about our actions and the events of our lives without scrambling to pronounce a verdict. Whether it’s how nothing happened when he prayed for the healing of a friend, or what he does one sad night while his girlfriend checks her phone, he sings about the textured pattern of our lives and everything that’s woven in there, whether we like it or not.
The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it alright, my dragonfly?
One might ask, well, if he’s religious at all why doesn’t he make an attempt at offering some hope or some answers to the questions of pain and death? We might feel tempted to pounce on his apparent faith and label him a “Christian artist.” (I just know some junior salesperson somewhere is trying to get her boss to order his albums as stock at Koorong.) If we did that we might feel disappointed that he’s not using the opportunity to boldly preach and explicitly tell his audience that death has been conquered. But, I feel at least, that we can’t expect this of this person, because despite this concert feeling reminiscent of a church service he’s not a preacher, or a psalmist, or a prophet—he’s a poet. And so if it’s a day for Sufjan when death doesn’t feel conquered and Christ doesn’t feel risen, I guess that’s just not going into the song. We shouldn’t look to this man for guidance because that’s not what he’s trying to give us. What I think he’s trying to give us is what he was offering on that big stage at Red Hill Auditorium last month—the chance to look at life and feel it, to see clearly its depravity and beauty, and to acknowledge that this is what it is. It’s like he’s trying to get us to accept that whatever it means for us, we know one thing: we’re all going to die.