Great musicians become great musicians because of one thing: innovation.
Think David Bowie’s flirtation with a new musical persona; Talking Heads’ layered basslines and polyrhythmic experimentation on Remain in Light; or Tom Waits’ ability to consistently reinvent himself while staying true to his grizzly spirit.
The history of artists reinventing their careers does feature some car crashes, but those that did it successfully demonstrated that it is better to embrace change than fear it.
Michigan-born musician Sufjan Stevens is a perfect example of someone who is consistently innovative. With the release of his fourth album Seven Swans, in 2004, Stevens jolted himself firmly into the sensitive folkster canon. Thanks to his banjo-strumming, soft-voiced ways, he fit into the archetypal singer-songwriter mould, replete with spiritual imagery.
Midway through his performance at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Tuesday night, he admitted to the full house that it would have been very easy for him to stick to what he was doing, to fall in with the presumption that he was just another folk singer. But he didn’t.
Seven Swans – which came after the folk and indie-pop stylings of its predecessors Michigan and A Sun Came, and the electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit – was so perfect, and received such adoration, that it must have been tempting to stay in that mould.
But instead of a minimal folk album, for his next release Stevens – aided by a tight team of collaborators – crafted the baroque-pop concept album Illinoise.
Here, Stevens took the idea of a ‘sonic palette’ and toyed with it. He brought in orchestral elements, played with time signatures, and happily explored the limits of experimentation within the pop realm on songs that used Chicago’s people and places to tell us stories about UFO sightings (‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’), love and death on a memorial holiday (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’), and a serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’).
Then he promised us 48 more of these albums, each one, like Michigan and Illinoise, dedicated to an American state. But he didn’t deliver on this promise. Instead, he moved on.
There was a Christmas album – Songs for Christmas – and an album created as a soundtrack to New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), followed by an EP, All Delighted People.
And then there was The Age of Adz, his most recent release, for which, as Stevens explained in his softly-spoken way during the gig, he reversed his usual songwriting process.
He wanted to play with song structure, starting off by creating electronic noises, not attempting to formulate a ‘proper’ rhythm structure or melody, or get stuck thinking about verse-chorus-verse. Then – and he laughed when he said this – he put a pop song over these sounds.
It was a tongue-in-cheek way of admitting that he is probably incapable of writing a song that doesn’t contain a semblance of mellifluousness. Melody is part of who he is – he wasn’t blessed with that voice and that ear for nothing.
But Stevens doesn’t stop at the music when it comes to innovative ideas – his shows are audiovisual feasts, exhilarating theatrical performances that have a wonderful childlike feel to them.
At the Olympia show, the band members’ black outfits with neon designs glowed bright under ultraviolet light, making them look like the least dangerous and most rhythmic members of the Tron cast.
And whereas some people would wait until the end of a show to bring out the giant angel wings and flashing lights, Stevens and company showed them off with a literal bang during gig opener Seven Swans.
This was just a taster of what was to come during the joyous two- hour set, such as the two female singers who danced and propelled themselves around with all the joy of children at a birthday party. Twirling ribboned batons, wearing spangly neon clothes, glitter facepaint and permanent smiles, their infectious happiness spread out to the audience below.
Then there were the wigs, the monkey masks, the flashing lights, the silly string and sunglasses, the ridiculous costumes, the bearded band member who claimed to be an alien visitor. Sublime, ridiculous, deliciously fun, all of it.
But this show would have been nothing with the presence of Royal Robertson, the outsider artist whose work was used in the inlay for Age of Adz and whose tragic life story Stevens told during the set.
Projected onto a huge screen onstage, Robertson’s colourful, graphic work was transformed into 3D lunar landscapes, with shapely women, strange and wondrous creatures, alien Gods and futuristic vehicles all making an appearance .
I wonder what Robertson himself would have thought of seeing his work displayed like that; he may have assumed some cosmic forces were at work, and in way perhaps he would be right.
That Sufjan Stevens played in Dublin on a day when the city had been on lockdown because of the Queen’s visit is somewhat poignant. All throughout the day there had been whispers of bomb scares, grumbles about roads being closed; a heavy garda presence hanging on every corner. The city felt somewhat eerie and deserted, like it had been taken over by another presence.
So to have Stevens and his pageantry to entertain our frazzled minds was simply a joy. Right there in the crowd, whatever part of the room you were in, you could transfix yourself on the bright, welcoming stage and just let go.
Performances like this are a bonding experience, a brief moment when people are connected by one thing and all feeling the same energy in the same space. It’s hard to put into words but when you are there, the intensity is palpable.
And during the final delicious moments of Sufjan Steven’s encore, as hundreds of voices sang along to Chicago; as the band leaped around the stage; as bouncing balls were punched from one end of the crowd to the other…in that brief, intense moment, everything else outside of that old Victorian theatre just didn’t matter.