A Melburnian Sufjan fan in Sydney

Prior to the 24th of May, I had been near Sydney three times. Twice as a part of a flight stopover en route to somewhere else and once I stayed at the Rydges Hotel at the airport. As a card-carrying, snobbish, eye-roll-inducing Melburnian, I had been on record as saying that I hoped to avoid visiting Sydney the city.

Funny how one thing immediately changed all that.

The VIVID lineup was announced back in March; on it were some great artists, but none I had any interest in flying to Sydney to see. One of those was Sufjan Stevens, an artist I had likely avoided because I didn’t know how to pronounce his name (the same thing happened with Sigur Rós; thankfully I have since rectified those shocking oversights. Also, I did listen to Age of Adz when it came out but I did not like it).

In January Sufjan announced his first new album in five years, Carrie & Lowell. I post regularly on a music forum and many of my fellow posters were thrilled, particularly at the news that it would be a return to his folk sound following the electronica of Age of Adz. I listened to the first single, enjoyed it to a degree, and decided before the new album came out I’d go back and listen to some of his older material. I asked my friend Gabrielle, a long-time fan whose music tastes in her early teens compared quite favourably with mine, which album I should listen to first. She said Seven Swans was her favourite. I ignored that and went with Illinoise.

I bought the album from my local JB HiFi (surely I have spent enough money there I’m now owed some shares), went home, made myself an American Honey and coke and sat down with the album and the lyric booklet. Really the only complaint I had of the album after that first listen was that most of the song titles were longer than the lyrics, and at a run time of approximately 14 days, it was a bit of a slog to get through.

But I loved it; I ended up researching John Wayne Gacy Jnr for the next three or four (very harrowing) days, I sang “Chicago” over and over again, I wondered why Casimir Pulaski had a day named after him, the Man of Metropolis Stole my Heart. Carrie & Lowell came out shortly after and I loved it too. Then I tried to buy Seven Swans, but nowhere fucking stocks it, so I hit it up on Spotify and loved it as well. Then I bought Michigan, and I bloody loved that, too.

Teresa and I getting acquainted with Michigan.

Teresa and I getting acquainted with Michigan.

It has been a long, long time since I have fallen so hard for an artist as quickly as I have with Sufjan. Destroyer was probably the last one, way back in 2010. And to be honest I’m still trying to figure out why… up until this point I have had a great distaste for the banjo (the blame for that rests almost entirely with Mumford and Sons), and I didn’t like Sufjan’s voice at first. It sounded a little too similar to Ben Gibbard’s for my liking, although as Gabby pointed out Gibbard has a higher register and a more emo sound to his vocals (probably why everyone thought of The Postal Service when that fucking “Fireflies” song came out). But there’s no denying there is something beguiling about Sufjan. His lyrics are consistently interesting, full of signposts and references to delight nerds like myself. He’s got a great falsetto. I think he’s got a great ear for melody. I know when I listened to Seven Swans all of the songs had this sense of familiarity about them; not to say they are unoriginal in any way, more that the tunes are just so strong you immediately feel like you’ve known and loved them for years. And while on the surface some of his folk stuff might seem simple musically, dig a bit deeper and there is a complexity there, kind of similar to Nick Drake in that regard, which rewards many repeat listens.

So anyway the point is I got really into Sufjan and Gabby and I decided to spend several hundreds of dollars going to see him in Sydney (I haven’t looked at my bank account since). The past few hundred words have been a very long-winded way of saying that I had to stop being a Melbourne pest and embrace Sydney.

We flew out at 6:45am Sunday morning on Tiger. It meant getting up at 5am. Anyone who knows me will be aware I don’t do mornings, but for some reason I was full of energy as we blared Taylor Swift on the way to the airport. (“New Romantics” fucking rules, fam.) I’ve flown Tiger before, so know what to expect – the 15-minute walk from the terminal to the plane, seats barely big enough to house Zoolander’s ants, inner ear pain. But I’ve gotta hand it to them, both the flight there and back were completely comfortable and fine.

Another thing friends will know about me is that I am not really a food person. So it was with great trepidation that I entered the Grounds of Alexandria, a gigantic eatery/market/bar/petting zoo in what seemed to be a pretty shitty part of town. Gabby was beaming; I was trying to hide my face in my hoodie, as the regulars could sense that I was an intruder to their world. Endeavouring to step out of my comfort zone, I had the cobia kingfish (I definitely said “cobia” wrong). I also didn’t know what “ceviche” means. Still don’t really, but it was a pretty delicious meal. I was worried when it came out and it was covered in chilli (I struggle with Nandos because Lemon & Herb is too hot) but to my utter amazement I could barely taste it.

Just one part of the impressive establishment that is Grounds of Alexandria.

Just one part of the impressive establishment that is Grounds of Alexandria.

As Gabby bought the concert tickets I was charged with buying flights and accommodation. “I don’t like trusting you with things like this”, was one text message I received. Probably with good reason in the end, as our hotel, the Central Private on Elizabeth St, was about as horrific as it gets. My gut sank as we approached the hotel, little more than a façade from the outside. There was Asian writing in crude lettering on the front, and both doors were locked with no one at the counter. You need to ring them to let them know you have arrived. Once inside, the only stairway (which also doubles as the fire escape) leads to the rooms, down a narrow hallway. Upon opening your room (which may or may not have different coloured and shaped numerals on the door), you are met with two very small beige beds, a beige wall, three windows that you can neither reach nor see out of, a chest of drawers whose drawers are glued shut, a television, a computer, a gigantic step into the bathroom that you will continuously fall over and a shower that contains all the water pressure of a Magikarp Splash. At $32.50 pp you can’t really complain, but Gabby’s endless laughter did demonstrate that I had fucked up the hotel booking.

After a quick nap and a shower it was time to venture out into Sydney for the first time. Before I get into that, I must devote a paragraph to my absolute adoration for Sydney’s trains. Gabby said they had double-decker trains, and I assumed it must be on some novelty line that only gets used by tourists. But to my utter astonishment, all of Sydney’s metro trains are double-decker. I was genuinely thrilled. You walk on these huge trains and you have a choice of going upstairs or downstairs! And on top of that YOU CAN CHANGE THE DIRECTION THE SEATS FACE. For a Melburnian used to graffiti-riddled, shit-smelling Connex/Metro trains, it was amazing. It was early, but already Sydney was beginning to reveal its wonder to me.

We caught the train from Grand Central to some other place to go to Carriageworks, which was showing The Panic Office, the art exhibition by Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood. It was damn impressive; the art space was gargantuan in size, and contained very little lighting. There were several open-plan rooms and walls containing tons of Radiohead artwork. The slogans from Hail to the Thief, the apocalyptic landscapes from Kid A and later The Eraser/Amok, the world-weary, anxious propaganda from OK Computer, the watery splodges from In Rainbows, the haunting trees from King of Limbs. As a massive, massive, massive Radiohead fan it was an absolute thrill. There were snippets of lyrics, the insane bears, a lot of quite depressing notes and cartoons and plenty of humour as well. Playing over the top was an 18-day (!) score made by Thom Yorke; it was mostly heavy drone and distant, haunting vocals and music and it was the perfect accompaniment to the exhibition.

Following a few rooftop beers at the Glenmore Hotel, arguments about which of the three English subjects (standard, Language or Literature) was the most impressive and some shitty photos of the landscape, we wandered down through Circular Kway (thanks Wil Sylvince) and VIVID before heading to the Opera House. I have to admit, I think Sydney outdoes us in this regard. There were some truly awesome light shows on several huge buildings, in particular a couple of 3D displays, that put our best White Night efforts to shame. Despite it being a Sunday night the Quay was full of life, everyone walking around in a jovial mood marvelling at the lights all around. It’s a pretty spectacular city, all lit up, Sydney, and to stand there and see the Bridge (which is much bigger and closer than I thought), the Opera House and everything in between was pretty special.

But of course we were there to see Sufjan. After a couple of ill-advised wines (another one to file in the ‘Fuck I’m An Idiot Sometimes’ column) we took our seats in the upper balcony, about halfway back. There was no opener and the show started shortly after 8pm.

The setlist, for those playing along at home

The setlist, for those playing along at home

Sufjan took to the stage alone, shrouded in darkness, playing a track from Michigan (that inspired The Roots’ undun) before bringing out the rest of the band for a seriously impressive run of 10 of the 11 songs from the new album. “Should Have Known Better” was an early highlight – it is something of an anomaly on the album, as it is about the only song that isn’t entirely depressing. When Sufjan sings “my brother had a daughter / the beauty that she brings / illumination…” the music takes a gentle uplift, the narrator sounding as if he experiencing one brief moment of clarity before falling back into his “black shroud”. It is only a short snippet, but the power it brings is amazing.

All of the songs on Carrie & Lowell have a hushed, quiet, contemplative nature, and on the album “All of Me Wants All of You” is like that. Live, Sufjan plays it accompanied by the electronic trappings of the All Delighted People/Age of Adz/Dark Was the Night era, and it takes on a whole new form. Backlit by sparse visuals, it too is an early highlight.

One of my favourite aspects of Carrie & Lowell is the dreamlike – if slightly nightmarish at times – ambient outros that many of the songs feature. “Drawn to the Blood” has a stately, ethereal ending, with Sufjan and his four bandmates hunched over their instruments building a beautiful wall of sound. The title track is another example of this, and it gives the mightily impressive first third of the show a great feeling of connectivity. One great aspect of the album is that almost every song contains something – whether it be a lyric (“I want to save you from your sorrow”), a piano line or guitar part, a vocal lilt, that finds the songs transcending themselves. Also impressive was the crowd. I get nervous when artists play slow, quiet songs in big venues for the fear they might lose the audience, but that never happened on this night. The crowd was pindrop-quiet during songs and applauded generously in between. It certainly added to the quietly epic show that was unfolding before us.

“Fourth of July” is my favourite song from the new album (and perhaps the best song of 2015 thus far, along with Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost”), and I eagerly awaited its appearance. Sufjan played its haunting piano notes and sang with a gentle yearning as his bandmates waited for their cue. He sang the song’s soft refrain “we’re all gonna die” over and over before the rest of the band came crashing in, building the song to a huge crescendo as the refrain became more intense, Sufjan now struggling to be heard above the noise. It was a spellbinding moment, and I could have left happy there and then.

In the next third came several songs that I did not know but all were wonderful and certainly had me keen to continue checking out the rest of his catalogue. Also played were three cuts from Seven Swans. It and Carrie & Lowell have a close musical bond, and they were all utterly lovely, in particular the heart-rending “In the Devil’s Territory” and bittersweet “The Dress Looks Nice on You”. This was also the period of the show where Sufjan broke character and went on several funny rants about the fast-paced nature of life.

"We're all gonna die..."

“We’re all gonna die…”

For me, the undoubted highlight of the show came at the end of the first set, “Blue Bucket of Gold”. The closing track on Carrie & Lowell, words can do little to describe how fucking phenomenal its performance was. A piano-led number about crushing unrequited love, it also features some beautiful orchestration in the background and it was brought wonderfully to life by Sufjan and his band. About five minutes long on the album, it extends out to at least 10 minutes live as Sufjan moves from the piano over to his electronic setup. The lighting – eight lengthy, diamond-shaped screens, two big disco balls and a range of stage lights – all combine to create an absolute feast for the eyes, as the band take the song to a monstrous, roaring conclusion that had my mouth agape. “Blue Bucket of Gold” destroyed me, in the best way, and I was only too happy to give a standing ovation as we waited for the encore.

Well, I waited. Gabby’s bladder had had enough and she raced out to my sheer horror. He opened with a really nice rendition of Chicago opener “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” before launching into heartbreaking fan-favourite “Casimir Pulaski Day”. Gabby thankfully returned a minute or so in to catch most of it. It was quite stunning; Sufjan’s acoustic guitar was deathly quiet, giving the performance a feeling of unprecedented intimacy. The band did their part, too, coming in beautifully with banjo, drums and trumpet. Sufjan introduced the next song by saying “I was going to play another song about death…” to much laughter, before saying “this song is about flying objects”. I had a brief fanboy freakout, thinking it might be “The Man of Metropolis Saves Our Hearts”, but instead came “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”, another great song. Combined with “Chicago” it was a delightfully fun ending to what was a truly astonishing gig. Had he played “Sister” I might have lost it completely but that’s a minor complaint. It made the slow walk and train back to the hotel, the hundreds of dollars and kilometres and the early morning all worth it.

Still on a high the next morning we had brunch at The Fine Food Store (my request for a patisserie having been shot down) before trundling to the airport. We managed to get out of town with negative $9 on our Opal cards, leaving us feeling like we’d successfully rorted the system, and then had a great deal of fun trying to locate the car in Melbourne airport’s long-term parking.

Anyway that’s enough rubbish from me. tl;dr – Sydney is a great place to visit but Melbourne is still the best. Sufjan was bloody amazing. I want double-decker trains in Melbourne. All things go, all things go.

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