SUFJAN STEVENS, Royal Festival Hall – Evening Standard, 3 Sept 2015

Sufjan Stevens chose as his support act Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear, a singer who performs with his mother. Then he and his five-strong band journeyed through his latest album at length, a collection that wallows in the death of his own mother in 2012.

Its title, Carrie & Lowell, refers to his estranged mother, a schizophrenic with substance abuse problems who left his family when he was a baby, and his stepfather, married to her for five years in the Eighties, who now runs Stevens’s record label. They appeared on stage on strips of video screen, swimming and smiling in the sunlight. The musician has been startlingly candid about this largely absent woman’s shift into permanent absence and its affect on him. Always capable of making beautiful, emotional acoustic music but prone to eccentric projects such as collections about Christmas, individual US states or a Brooklyn freeway, the still, quiet anguish of his new material is devastating.

During the main body of the performance he didn’t speak between songs. The repeated refrain of Fourth of July – “We’re all gonna die” – couldn’t have been clearer. Drawn to the Blood and Should Have Known Better were enriched from their delicate recorded forms to become electronic chamber music, with Stevens dancing slowly. He often sang near his microphone rather than into it, increasing the fragility of his soft falsetto. Dawn Landes added her own vocal flutterings.

Blue Bucket of Gold ended in a long, celestial climax, with Nico Muhly appearing high up on the Hall’s organ to hit deep, rumbling notes. “We have passed through the vortex and survived,” Sufjans said, returning for his encore wearing a baseball cap to indicate a relatively light finale of older favourites. “It’s been a long and horrible journey but it leads to here.” What an extraordinary place to be.