Tonight I’ll be seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert at the Sydney Opera House. I’m psyched to say the least. I’ve waited a long time for this. I missed him seeing him play his instant-classic Illinois with a full orchestra in New York a few years ago, forlornly waiting for a scalper in the lobby of Lincoln Center to no avail, and I was gutted; later I missed a performance of his song cycle about the BQE. Years of missing out will end tonight. (Hopefully I won’t get hit by a truck on my way there.)

About a year ago I saw Andrew Bird play in the same room (the main Concert Hall). It was a fantastic show, an early peak experience in the euphoria of migrating to Oz. You might say Bird and Sufjan are kindred musical spirits in the whole indie folk thing, and inspire similar passion in a similar fanbase. So I have an inkling of what tonight can be like. The Concert Hall is a good space.

Sufjan’s music means that much more to me because he’s a Christian, one of the few among indie musicians that I can name. Why does it matter? Where to begin? Well, it’s odd being a Christian who’s… I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. A Christian who’s passionate about underground music and independent film and art? Who’s dedicated to tolerance and social justice? Who’s into funky beats and dancing all night? I know, I know, it’s supposed to be incompatible. Religion isn’t cool – I read it on the internet, so it must be true. Anyway, I don’t want to say it’s lonely, because that would sound like I’m bitching. But I guess it’s a bit odd. So I cherish Sufjan like he’s one of my own, like the way Ivorians must cherish Didier Drogba. The way Jamaicans cherish Bob Marley.

It’s a feeling that runs a lot deeper than critical thinking. He could probably do no wrong by me. But the fact that he’s one of the most innovative and acclaimed musicians working today is not only an incredible bonus, it’s something that I actually invest hopes and dreams in. Too much riding on it. As if I’m from another planet, trapped in a world where no one understands me, confused, hardly aware of who I am. And Sufjan is like a messenger from my people, someone who has the power to help me realize why I’m here.

You are the life I needed all along
I think of you as my brother, although that sounds dumb
And words are futile devices…

Wait, does that sound too intense? Um, yeah. A bit lonely. Spend a lot of time downplaying it, or changing the subject, trying to find an explanation, a way to talk about it matter-of-factly, wondering if I’m being a wuss, making cryptic statements. Death isn’t the end you know, there’s something else. Could you pass the hot sauce?

I keep waiting for the balloon to burst – to find out it was all a dream, or a joke. I half expect to read an interview with Sufjan one day, and he’ll say, “Christian? No, I’m not a Christian. Not really. Not anymore. The religion thing was just a hook, something I used early in my career to get attention. It sounded good, didn’t it?”

Anyway, I don’t mean to make a big deal about it. For one thing, Sufjan doesn’t. He presents his music and ideas as a personal expression and asks it to be judged as it would be for anyone else. And he gently deflects questions about it during interviews. But – and this is important – his faith is obviously a big part of what he does. He made an entire album about it – 2004’s Seven Swans, which many consider his best. And it forms a crucial subtext for his whole body of work. When he sings about trying to understand and forgive John Wayne Gacy; when he sings, “I made a lot of mistakes,” followed by the uplifting chorus, “You came to take us,” I know right where he’s coming from. If it didn’t mean anything, he’d give it up and forget about it, just like a lot of other artists do.

But he hasn’t, and he’s only gained more fame and respect. It’s because he makes fantastic music; but I think it’s also because he’s not really evangelical. Changing people’s minds about religion is not what his music’s about. It’s highly personal music: you might say it’s confessional. It’s about his problems, his obsessions (including, famously, history and geography), his issues with himself, with his faith. And he’s very frank about having a lot of issues. He struggles. And that’s what’s so important to me, because I struggle, we all struggle. You can put a brave face on it and not talk about it. Fine. Or you can share it and try to work it out. That’s what indie is all about. Purely devotional music is a fine thing, but it’s different, it’s got its own time and place. (Although, now that I think about it, devotional music of various kinds influenced George Harrison, Carlos Santana, Jeff Buckley and countless others, including Sufjan himself of course. And gospel is part of everything from bluegrass to Detroit techno. So, yeah, at the end it’s all music, it’s all love.)

Personal. Devotional at times. But also visionary. His label’s website says his songs incorporate “religious fantasy.” Yes, he sings about God, but his focus is on the transfigurative, the transformative, the transcendental – the aspects of the divine that are beyond dogma, beyond explanation, and sometimes scary. The ghostly aspect of the Holy Ghost. On the apocalyptic title track of Seven Swans, he sings,

He will take you
If you run, He will chase you
For He is the Lord

It ain’t a lullaby. It always reminds me of the work of William Blake, the great 18th-century artist, mystic and religious dissenter who created some truly otherworldly and sometimes disturbing images of God and angels and divine warfare. Who wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” thus shaping the careers of Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison and Jim Jarmusch.

It gets even more mystical on Sufjan’s latest album, The Age of Adz. He’s has been clear in interviews that he was tired of writing narratives about grand and important subjects, and wanted to make music more elemental, more sensual, even more personal. A lot of people are saying the new one is darker and weirder than his earlier stuff. Sufjan was often pretty weird before; but it’s all-out on the new album. He sings about inner turmoil, about despair, about breakdowns, about physical pain, about sex, suicide, volcanoes erupting, the world ending, outer space… and love, too much love.

Vesuvius
Are you a ghost?
Or the symbol of light?
Or a fantasy host?
In your breast
I carry the form
The heart of the Earth
And the weapons of warmth
Vesuvius
The tragic oath
For you have destroyed
With the elegant smoke
Oracle, I’ve fallen at last
But they were the feast
Of a permanent blast

Sufjan’s primary influence on The Age of Adz, from the title to the cover art to the theme of many of the lyrics, was another visionary artist named Royal Robertson. A paranoid-schizophrenic minister and self-proclaimed prophet from Mississippi, Robertson spent his life painting lurid, comic-book-style art depicting angels, gods, demons, spaceships and space creatures drawn, he claimed, from the visions he had each night. He was convinced that he was a messenger of the world’s end, and his art was filled with semi-literate texts pronouncing doom and destruction. Meanwhile he also had a rather unsavory and disturbing attitude about women.

Sufjan has said that he appreciates the complete freedom of expression found in Royal’s art. But there’s no question he’s visiting the dark side too. So when he sings,

I know I’ve caused you trouble, I know I’ve caused you pain
But I must do the right thing and get real
I know I’ve lost my conscience, I know I’ve lost all shape
But I must do myself a favor
I must get real, get right with the Lord

he’s playing with us. There’s the thrill of hearing him testify, but also the realization that he’s singing as much about Royal as he is about himself, and daring us to see him as a freak.

The new lyrical mode is accompanied by a radical shift in the music too: all but abandoning the folky twang of his most popular music, The Age of Adz finds him trying electronic sounds and experimenting with song structures and weird orchestral arrangements – experimenting with everything – like never before. Again, Sufjan has never made conventional pop music, has always manifested avant-garde influences like Steve Reich. But he’s really gone into outer space with this one. It’s a busy, explosive, sometimes crazy sound, bright and murky at the same time (maybe like the fire and smoke of a volcano?), playful and disturbing at the same time. It brings to mind similar transitions made by Björk, Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. As each of them discovered, electronic instruments are not only a way to get more abstract and daring with sound, but also ironically a way to get even more raw and personal with performance than acoustic instruments can allow.

And it’s worthy of those comparisons. This is a great album. I wasn’t sure what I thought about it at first; it’s difficult music. But so is Kid A. It’s difficult, it’s sprawling, but strangely it’s also more pop than any of his other music – he’s messing around with Auto-Tune, with electro, with indietronica, with the sounds of R&B radio and the clubs. And as you can see in the amazing video for “Too Much,” he’s matching the music with bold visual art, wild styles and colors, borrowing from Kanye and MIA and everything about the 80s, launching into a pure graphic space odyssey. He’s trying all kinds of things. But it’s coming together into a vision. A big vision. Too much love.

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