A truly inspiring set by a truly inspiring musician in a truly inspiring venue. So it’s inspiring then…
For the final date of a European tour that began in Dublin at the start of the month, prolific indie-folk polymath Sufjan Stevens couldn’t possibly have chosen a more picturesque setting. Being a 19th century Lutheran Free Church situated next to a frozen lake in the heart of Iceland’s capital city, the Fríkirkjan has more in common with this year’s Save The Children advent calendar art than your average beer-slick gig pit. Tonight the 600-capacity audience have shed their coats and scarves to cram themselves into wooden pews amid piles of prayer books and abandoned choristers’ robes. Pixyish girls in flowery grandma dresses and bespectacled boys in cardigans (some of whom are taking sly nips from hip flasks or concealed cans of the local Viking-brand lager) are lit by the flames of a hundred tiny candles, the nearest thing to a backstage area is the vestry and the whole building had to be specially blessed by the local priest before the gig could take place.
Of course, Stevens is not a man who has ever conformed to accepted modes of rock behaviour. So enigmatic that even his record company don’t have a real idea of how old he is, he hates interviews, is happiest when birdwatching and releases exquisitely crafted, literate albums with the same regularity that some of the more carefree members of the NME staff change their underwear. Tonight he arrives on to the makeshift stage area with his nine-piece band dressed in matching boy-scout shirts, homemade bird masks and cloth butterfly wings that threaten to get singed by the votive candles, announcing himself to be “Chief Eagle Majesty Snowbird And The Butterfly Kite Brigade”. It’s quite an entrance.
Of course, there are other reasons why tonight’s venue is so appropriate. The fact that it’s currently minus eight degrees outside and the streets are piled with snow makes sense when Sufjan is currently plugging his five-CD boxset of Christmas songs – but there’s also the fact that he breaks one of rock’s biggest taboos by being public about his devout Christianity. It’s one of the few things that we actually know about him. So although new song ‘That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!’ is prefaced by Stevens encouraging audience members to chuck inflatable plastic Santas around the venue, he demands that we “throw them reverentially: we are in a church”. Not that there’s much that’s particularly reverential about some of these compositions: ‘The Transfiguration’ wraps its Biblical references in an arrangement that sounds like a drunken High School marching band, while ‘The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts’ is prefaced by a brief brass-powered snatch of the original Christopher Reeve-model Superman theme and ends in a cacophony that is nothing less than diabolical.
Of course, the danger of staging a gig in such a spectacular venue and then filling it, as Sufjan does, with butterfly wings, inflatables, home movies and rambling stories about wasps and pirates is that the music might end up being overlooked. Lucky then, that we’re in the presence of the MySpace generation’s Brian Wilson, a man versatile enough to write songs such as ‘Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!’ that sound like the incidental music to a lost 1950s public information film and
play them in the same set as ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ – almost certainly the most beautiful song about a homicidal clown-dressing serial killer ever written. Courteously applauding his own band after each of his mini symphonies, his wings gently wafting behind him, singing his curious outsiders’ songs about the oddness of America, Sufjan Stevens is truly at home here in this church in Europe’s most Northerly capital city. Tonight’s venue isn’t like most venues and tonight isn’t like most gigs, but then Sufjan Stevens isn’t like most other pop stars. He’s far, far better. Hallelujah!