As Sufjan Stevens sat down at piano on the stage of the Schnitzer Monday night, you could feel the audience hold its collective breath. We all knew what we were in for. Then he began, with the quiet opening chords of "Redford," a meditative elegy to a township 15 miles outside of Detroit.
I remember clearly the first time I heard Stevens, on headphones, in a cubicle ten stories above Hollywood Boulevard. An hour earlier, I’d read about a new album by a Detroit-born folkie who had proclaimed his ambition to write a record about all fifty states. First up: Michigan.
It seemed inconceivable to the twenty-something me that anyone could find anything remarkable about a state I’d fled at the earliest opportunity, for the furthest corner of United States with a creative economy. In my more insufferable moments I dismissed my homeland as an embarrassing flyover, politically backwards, inhospitable to creative ambition. I practically sprinted to Amoeba Records to buy it.
Four songs into the album I was crying at my desk. Here was a stunning collection of hymns to a Michigan I barely remembered: the sand dunes, lakes, forests, farms, marching bands—my beloved Detroit Tigers—the paradise of childhood, before everything got so complicated. For the first time in the six years since leaving Ann Arbor, I wanted to go home.
I’ve followed Stevens closely in the 15 years since. Two years after hearing Michigan, I played 2005’s Illinois—a carnival of midwestern history—on repeat while I painted my new apartment in Detroit. The Avalanche scored my decision to return to California. The symphonic New York epic BQE was critical listening while I completed my first book on Amtrak between Vancouver and Seattle and contemplated a move to the Pacific Northwest. Age of Adz accompanied me on the trip to meet my new literary agent in New York. Seven Swans got me through the preemptive grief that came with a dire diagnosis as my mom endured chemotherapy 3,000 miles from my bedroom in Portland. (Postscript: she’s in remission.)
Stevens's music is transportive: it's always taken me someplace else, even if it's a place I've already been. On Monday night, for the first time, I saw him perform in the town where I live. He was singing about Oregon, my home now for four years. And he was singing about losing his mom.
Stevens’s gift is landscape, physical and emotional. His newest offering, Carrie and Lowell, finds him grappling with the death of his mother and on Monday night in Portland, she was everywhere. Her image drifted above him in an affecting video installation as a young woman with a dark-haired toddler in 1970s Michigan as he began the album's opening track, "Death with Dignity."
For several bars after the singing stopped, the composition continued in a series of descending, ethereal chords, and spotlights roamed through Schnitzer Hall like cosmic searchlights. Stevens moved through the album in its entirety while images of his mom and stepfather—the Lowell of Carrie and Lowell, who gave the singer stability as his mother struggled with alcoholism and mental illness—dissolved into the meditative churn and swell of the Oregon Coast, where Sufjan spent some time as a child.
He took us through stages of mourning familiar to anyone who’s felt a complicated, difficult relationship end abruptly and with unforgiving finality before it can be resolved. The songs pulsed with waves of regret, estrangement, wonder, longing, attachment, and chaos. And all along he balanced unsorted feelings with the beauty of the natural world. “Should Have Known Better” sketched scenes from a compromised childhood, but also found lightness: "I’m light as a feather/I’m bright as the Oregon breeze".
Of the four Sufjan Stevens performances I’ve seen to date—yep, I'm that kind of fan—this one found him the most subdued, but also the most forthcoming. Backed by a spare band, he accompanied himself on guitar and piano. His vocals, which faltered often, were buoyed by a lilting soprano. The red-eyed audience was rapt; Stevens transformed the majestic Schnitzer auditorium into a church. He spoke candidly about depression and the perils of self-perpetuating despair before making a plea to the audience: “Look up, look up, look up. There’s light all around you.”
Sufjan Stevens performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday, June 8.