The last time Sufjan Stevens came to town, in 2012, he delivered a Christmas concert that involved a “Wheel of Fortune”-like song wheel, inflatable props and a keyboardist in a nun costume. Touring behind his ’80s-flavored synth-pop collection in 2010, he did a little break-dancing and wore a Tron-like neon outfit on stage.
The contrast between those impossibly cutesy shows and Stevens’ quickly sold-out concert Wednesday at Northrop Auditorium was sharper than the pop hooks in his breakout 2005 hit “Chicago” (aka the “all things go” song).
You knew this was going to be a completely different kind of performance when Stevens first stepped up to the microphone: The song was called “Death With Dignity.”
A Michigan-bred indie-folk songwriter with a marshmallow-soft voice and a die-hard dorm-room following, the 39-year-old Stevens finally got serious again on his new album, “Carrie & Lowell.” Very serious, in fact. The hushed, hallowed and sometimes harrowing collection was inspired by the recent death of his mother and the mental illness she suffered throughout adulthood, which frequently kept her out of her children’s lives.
No props on this night, in other words. Stevens did employ an arty video backdrop showing grainy home movies and church-pamphlet scenery, which added a little brightness literally and figuratively to the often dark and sometimes monotone tunes.
He played the entire new album, but not entirely in order. His four-piece band did an exceptional job pulling out melodies and adding ambience to the songs without sacrificing the album’s intimate power, whether it was adding a pulsating backbone to “All of Me Wants You” or a heavy climax to the eerie piano epic “John My Beloved.”
Many times in the two-hour set, it felt like Stevens was talking directly to his mother. And those moments were uncommonly raw and intense, no matter how delicate the music. In the remorseful “Shoulda Known Better,” for instance, he sang to her, “I should have wrote a letter/ Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling.” In “The Only Thing,” he asked, “Did you even love me at all?”
Stevens did not actually talk to the crowd until he got past most of the new album. Even then, the conversation centered on death, albeit in his weirdly charming way: He talked about the small zoo’s worth of animals his stepmother brought into their rural home growing up, most of which wound up being burned along with the garbage.
“Death is the ultimate refinery,” he pontificated.
Stevens spliced in a few older tunes toward the end of the regular set, including “In the Devil’s Territory” and “Sister,” and then encored with fan favorites such as “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Chicago.” But what came before them was nothing short of a career rebirth.