Life, death and terrible parenting are some of the subjects Sufjan Stevens delves into on his excruciatingly raw new album, Carrie and Lowell. Recorded as the Michigan folk singer grieved for the alcoholic mother from whom he spent much of his adult life estranged, the LP leads the listener on a nerve-fraying journey to the rockiest peaks of human emotion, by turns wistful, recriminatory and sobbingly sad.
Kicking off his European tour in the unlikely setting of a university campus on the north side of Dublin, Stevens was assiduous in recreating the pain and poise of the LP. The performance was consciously bare-boned, lacking the feather boats and inflatable supermen that were a feature of the artist’s previous live shows.
In the past it has sometimes been hard to tell whether Stevens’ finely wrought angst was 100 per cent in earnest or to be taken as with a side-serving of winking detachment.
Tonight, he wanted us to be in no doubt as to his sincerity and was rewarded with a room of craft-bearded hipsters who seemed perpetually on the brink of non-ironic man-tears.
Stevens drew mostly on Carrie and Lowell, though there was some fan service during the encore, as he dispensed with the funereal scowl, giggled occasionally and reprised catalogue favourites ‘Chicago’ and ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’. The undoubted centre-piece, however, was Carrie and Lowell stand-out the ‘Fourth Of July’, based on a death bed conversation between the singer and his mother.
Sufjan Stevens putting a cap on a sublime show @HelixDublin pic.twitter.com/jvKbvx4NRy— Jim Carroll (@byjimcarroll) August 29, 2015
“Why do you cry?” wonders his mom in the song as Stevens realises she is not long for this world. “We’re all going to die”.
It’s testament to Stevens’ uncanniness as a songwriter that he recasts his devastating coda as an affirmative acclimation — we’re all going to die, so live while you can.