On turning 30 five years ago, Sufjan Stevens suffered a premature midlife crisis. He began drinking, smoking, even – the daredevil – stamp-collecting. He abandoned his quixotic scheme to write an album about each US state (having got as far as his native Michigan and Illinois). Quirky chamber-pop gave way to an orchestral suite written in tribute to an expressway near his Brooklyn apartment.
Then a mysterious series of anxiety attacks prompted an even bolder reinvention. On his latest album, The Age of Adz, Stevens turns himself into an indie-folk Sun Ra, composing sprawling psychedelic songs out of improvised computer samples and singing in his fragile, wondering way about “visiting the future from outer space”. It makes a change from playing banjo and singing about the Midwest.
At the Royal Festival Hall, playing his first UK show in five years, Stevens brought The Age of Adz’s otherworldly contours to life magnificently. The staging resembled a modern-day psychedelic happening. Stevens and his band wore fluorescent-patterned outfits influenced by the sci-fi film Tron.
Two backing singers capered on a podium. Parts of the concert took place behind a gauze screen on to which were projected geometric shapes and pictures of spaceships as Stevens and Co glowed in the background.
He opened with an old song, “Seven Swans”, about his belief in Christianity, which ended with him donning a pair of white wings, fallen angel-style, as the music suffered a violent seizure. The theme of spiritual crisis recurs in The Age of Adz. Clanking beats, effects-pedal-distorted guitars and processed vocals lie a long way from his organic, folky beginnings. Yet Stevens, a songwriter of rare inventiveness, anchors the experimentation with catchy rhythms and charming melodies.
“Too Much” filtered echoing guitar effects and spacey synths through a Beck-style hip-hop beat. “Age of Adz” set epiphanic invocations of “eternal living” to a marching tempo from two drummers and optimistic blasts from a pair of trumpeters. “I Want to Be Well”, introduced cryptically as being about “illness and recovery”, combined busy woodwind movements up and down the scale with jerky sideways beats, a vivid illustration of conflicting forces.
There’s an element of play-acting to Stevens’ space cadet persona. “You guys aren’t buying any of this bullshit psychobabble,” he admitted at one point, terminating some New Age nonsense about being a “star child”. Yet it was precisely the underlying knowingness that enabled him to pull off a show such as this: a vibrant, theatrical feast for the senses.