Crowds are powerful beasts, rippling with the self-righteousness that comes from knowing that they’ve got plenty of people around who will a) agree with them and b) back them up in a fight. The announcement of John Peel’s death yesterday provoked an outpouring of public grief unseen since Di died. Like Diana, Peel “meant” something to those who mourned him: he introduced them to alternative music or he played their band on the radio, something important at any rate. Internet messageboards and blogs instantly turned into condolence books. Anyone who dared to question his achievements was flamed or “defriended”. He is, lest we forget, the 43rd greatest Briton of all time. To outsiders with less malleable upper lips, the whole confession of emotion thing seemed a little distasteful. As with the Diana-hysteria, if you weren’t moved to tears then you were considered emotionally dysfunctional. The irony is that Peel was himself wry and largely unsentimental, so to see him sanctified in this way is bizarre.
The crowd who had come to see Sufjan Stevens were no less devoted in their own way. Despite it being just him and an acoustic guitar/banjo (usually a recipe for idle chatter and braying laughter) Lock 17 was incredibly quiet. You had the sense that you’d be putting your life at risk for even clearing your throat between songs. The front three rows beamed their good vibes up at Stevens: laughing far harder at his jokes than they merited and listening intensely. The question is: does he deserve it?
Well, yes and no.
Opening with a cover of REM’s The One I Love, what we get over the course of an hour and a quarter is one emotion – melancholy resignation – done very well. Whereas the chorus in the REM version is a loud and anguished “Fire!!”, Stevens never changes tone. He has a captivating soft whisper of a voice, a voice that warms the words to the point where they glow. And the lyrics he sings aren’t at all bad. At a time where every singer I meet seems to be writing a novel, he should be commended for doing the reverse and putting the lessons he learned in creative writing class into song. The back stories he tells are also amusing (though not as amusing as some in the audience seemed to think). Like the one about being 16 and going out with an 18 year old. She dumped him for a 26 year old then invited him to the wedding. He tells the story so well that all the girls swoon and all the boys sympathise. He is so staggeringly nice. And that is his perhaps his greatest weakness.
Melancholy can be a self-indulgent emotion and it is his niceness allows for it to be received so sympathetically, but it also prevents it from really cutting. On the tube to Camden, I listened Joni Mitchell’s Blue, a a mistake I think, for whereas Joni’s voice swoops, Sufjan’s trundles; whereas Joni sends shivers down the spine, Sufjan pats you on the back. There are no negative emotions in his music, meaning that it often veers towards mawkishness.
For all this, Sufjan Stevens is a talent to watch out for. It will certainly be interesting to see how he develops from here.