I took an extended weekend up to Kansas City with the Tribe of Jones to see Sufjan Steven’s in concert Tuesday. This was my second Sufjan concert, the first being four years ago during his “Age of Adz” tour. The concert was fantastical. Stevens played the entire two hours to a full house, playing his entire new album “Carrie & Lowell,” sharing a soliloquy of eloquent thoughts, a 10 minute instrumental that felt like a brilliant, but overwhelming brainwashing tactic, and ending the night with favorites like “All Things Go.” Behind him were nine long pillars with points, like elongated diamonds, on which he had home videos of his childhood playing, which, for a very chill, reflective album, made his performance visually stimulating.
The tour probably should be more accurately named “An Evening with Sufjan.” Three thousand people sat in individual seats underneath the opulence of The Midland theater, built in 1927. We sat without moshpits or shoutouts. It was like a night at a symphony, with Steven’s and his band of five or six talented musicians, switching instruments with every song like it was musical chairs.
Steven’s latest album explores the death of his late mother, from whom he was estranged. Its sound is similar to his older albums in its simple and folksy high-mountain melodies, and is a drastic difference from his “Age of Adz” album, which, in concert, was bizarrely overwhelming in a grandiose way.
In between performing his full “Carrie & Lowell” and a psychedelic instrumental session, Steven’s stopped to share a few thoughts. Though his reflections on his family in his latest album seem self-evident in his lyrics, it was interesting and compelling to hear him wonder out loud for a few minutes unrehearsed. His soliloquy, which I recorded and transcribed below, is wonderfully casually eloquent, a trait we seldom see in vernacular. How many of our conversations diverge into such deep ponder? Only the best of them do, those conversations late at night with close friends, with whom we are free to share our deepest fears and loathings, or nightmares and our dreams, our secret thoughts. Below is what makes Stevens such a compelling artist, and moreover a compelling Christian artist that writes specific and intricate lyrics, nothing like the vague lyrics so often found in contemporary Christian music, which often, sadly, lack originality. Granted, Stevens is strange and at times too liberal for most, but there his honest irreverence and themes of grace draw the open mind to impactful poetry.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about occupation lately. We went to the World War I Museum. There’s a lot of talk about occupation, allies, occupation of land, ceasing, conquering. This idea of possession, of power, of property, of ideology. It’s pretty amazing–all the bloodshed in the name of ideology and how it instigates this massive occupation. And thinking also about the occupation of death, which I know seems a little strange and morbid and a little circuitous twist on words. But, to occupy now means to dwell or reside, it also relates to location, jobs, also to occupy your time could also mean a hobby. But then there’s this other idea that literally what occupy means is to cease or maintain through force. And I thought it’s interesting how death is sort of the greatest occupation of all. its something that we should probably meditate as we occupy our time in life, in celebrating, in breathing, in loving, in kissing, in singing, and in working our asses off all the time. It’s okay every once in a while to stop and think about this occupation of death, that it resides in us, that we are occupied by it every day of our lives. But there will come a day when we will have to face the greatest occupation of all, the greatest triumphs of our lives, which is death. And I think it’s possible to maybe reside with that every day without feeling anguish or anxiety or fear of death. I think you can think of this occupant of death as a companion. Something that can transform the way that you live every moment, every day, every hour, and every year. To really relish in it, and care for your time and care for those around you and care for yourself and allow for the great occupation of death to allow you to have sort of a greater, more enlightened, more happy, more joyful, ordinary life. And to think also that the death that occupies us is those who are antecedents–our family and our friends– those who come before us. They reside in us as memories and as histories and experiences and that we live day to day occupying our time, also occupying their memories. And the fruit of their lives becomes the fruit of ours. It’s interesting to think of that as compound. Life–all lives–that have preceded ours. So that’s my thought and my prayer today is to be a steward–to occupy your time with love.”