By Nick Owen
“Hi, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I’m your entertainment for the evening. We’re going to be travelling the far reaches of inner and outer space under the cosmic battleship that is the Dome. It should be a lot of fun.”
So began the most bizarre and outlandish musical spectacle the so called “cosmic battleship” is likely to ever see. Those who have had the chance to witness a Sufjan show will know that the man is rather fond of creating his own little universes, but this really was something entirely out there.
The last time he graced a UK stage, boy-scout outfits and inflatable Supermen were the modus operandi of his live shows. Five years on, Tron-inspired DayGlo leotards adorn himself and his madcap ten-piece ensemble, backdropped by lasers projecting spectacular interstellar animations.
Since the release of 2005’s critically acclaimed Come on Feel the Illinoise – the genre-bending album that brought the wider world to the attention of his banjo-inflected folk – Stevens had what he describes as an “existential breakdown”.
His wildly ambitious plan to document each of the American states in album form has been shelved (two down, 48 to go), and the music he now produces has been described by one Guardian critic as “an orchestra having a nervous breakdown”. With this in mind, mutterings of trepidation can be heard amongst the crowd.
The show begins with Seven Swans, the title track of his third album. With angel wings attached, Stevens lulls us into a false sense of serenity with the simple twang of his banjo before his band kicks in, lifting the roof (or should that be flight deck?) with the sonic thunder that embodies the rest of the show.
From then onwards, the focus turns entirely to tracks from his two offerings from 2010, the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz. The beeps, bleeps and general Moog-modulated madness expressed on Adz begins to take over the hall as Stevens and his backing singers dance their way into another dimension.
Halfway through the show, the frenetic pace winds down and Stevens enters space cadet territory with a ten-minute lecture on the provenance of Adz. As he talks about the inspiration gleamed from the artworks of paranoid-schizophrenic Royal Robertson – a sign-painter from Louisiana who depicted his apocalyptic prophesies through child-like drawings – some choose to shuffle out and empty their bladders.
As the show nears its end it’s hard to determine whether what we are witnessing is unparalleled genius or narcissistic self-indulgence; quite possibly a generous mix of both. Whatever the case, the show’s closer is the rapturously epic Impossible Soul, a 25-minute delight. “It’s a long life / Only one last chance / Could it get much better? / Do you want to dance?” sings Sufjan as streamers and confetti fill the Dome.
For the encore, balloons of all sizes are let loose from the rafters as Stevens, relinquished from leotard and far more relaxed, belts out Chicago. Before he gets the chance to finally leave the stage, someone in the crowd shouts out: “We are all delighted people!” I’m sure no one disagreed.