In a move that surprised no one, Sufjan Stevens followed up his Crazy Experimental Album (2010’s The Age Of Adz) with a Stripped-Down, Back-To-Basics Album (Carrie & Lowell, released a few weeks ago). The new record is a tribute of sorts to Stevens’ late mother (who passed away in 2012) and his stepfather. It’s certainly a return to Stevens’ folk roots, but it’s actually more bare-bones than anything he’s done in the past. There’s hardly any of the usual orchestration or electronic flourishes to accompany Stevens’ hushed vocals and quiet acoustic picking.

A Sufjan Stevens tour focusing on new material could’ve easily been a dude on a stool with an acoustic guitar, maybe hopping over to a piano occasionally. Thursday night at Riverside Theater, it was clear from the ethereal intro of “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” that Stevens wasn’t taking the easy route. He had five other musicians with him who switched instruments almost as often as he did, and as an ensemble, they were impeccable. His reputation for lavish productions preceded him, and whatever winged orchestras he may have employed in the past, they could scarcely have been more effective than his current setup. The visuals weren’t flashy until the very end; nine flat pillars occasionally displayed grainy bits of home video in the background, but there was a unique schematic of lights and effects for each Carrie song—always tasteful, illuminating in unexpected ways.

Carrie & Lowell focuses sharply on death, and Stevens played 10 of its 11 tracks in succession as the main event. Most songs benefited from the enhanced dynamics of the full band, but particularly haunting was the final stretch of “Fourth Of July.” On the album, it’s barely a whisper, but as this band slowly increased the intensity, the mantra of “We’re all gonna die” somehow felt like a rallying cry.

Following the title track of the album, Stevens addressed the crowd for the first time, and his banter—one of the few elements of the performance that varies from show to show—wound up being the crux of the evening. He described a childhood memory of his great-grandmother’s funeral, a joyous occasion for him that cast a positive light on death as a beautiful, matronly concept. This deeply embedded impression expanded into a musing on femininity as the source of all life, and motherhood as a sort of living martyrdom, tying the triumph and tragedy of the life/death cycle together into one unifying concept. Okay, maybe Stevens is no St. Augustine, but listening to him candidly and eloquently wind his way through this unfinished theology was a breath of fresh air.

After the speech, Stevens played a handful of older tunes (some of which also dealt with death), now lit in traditional rock-show style. The delicate, serpentine harmonies of “The Owl And The Tanager” were executed perfectly, and a pair of songs from 2004’s Seven Swans gave the proceedings a relatively laid-back feel prior to the finale of the set. As the last track on Carrie, “Blue Bucket Of Gold,” came to its conclusion, scattered white light beamed from behind the video screens like stars, and the music swelled into a pulsing cacophony as the lighting director pulled out all the stops. In the context of the set, this monstrous force felt like the sensory equivalent of death itself—if not the end of the universe—not in a morbid sense, but in a cathartic transcendence.

Maybe death is “singing Hosannas with the angels,” the description Stevens recalled his stepmother relating to him at age 7. Maybe it’s just organic matter returning to the Earth. Whatever it is, Stevens seemed determined to find a way to take the dread out of it, to encourage his audience to embrace the only certainty in life through his own contemplations of death. What nobler artistic aim could there be?

Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
Death With Dignity
Should Have Known Better
Drawn To the Blood
All Of Me Wants All Of You
John My Beloved
The Only Thing
Fourth Of July
No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross
Carrie & Lowell
The Owl And The Tanager
In The Devil’s Territory
For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti
Futile Devices
Blue Bucket Of Gold

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