Sufjan Stevens described his mesmerising and moving Civic Theatre show last night more succinctly than anyone else could: "A celebration of termination."

Heavy themes dominated as the American singer-songwriter, and his four-piece band, showcased his latest album Carrie and Lowell, which deals with the death of his mother and Stevens' childhood memories of her and his stepfather.

A trombone-led Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) sets the tone before the first song from the new album, Death with Dignity - and the first lump in the throat.

Stevens has the ability to maintain a hushed, emotional intensity in his singing, even as his multi-disciplined band unpacks the textures and dynamics in his songs with surprising power.


On his last visit here he dazzled the Bruce Mason Theatre with a joyous day-glo performance which looked and sounded like a mash-up of Pink Floyd and the Mighty Boosh

In that 2011 show, he brought the angular electronic sounds of The Age of Adz to life in a way that was scarcely imaginable listening to the album in the comfort of your living room.

Last night's performance was far more sombre - gone are the neon suits - but almost as adventurous as pulsating rhythms, rich harmonies and psychedelic jams are extricated from the low-key sonics of the recorded work.

Despite Stevens not addressing the audience until the encore (a far cry from the lively banter of the Bruce Mason Theatre), the sold-out crowd are well and truly along for the ride.

All but three songs in the main part of the concert were from Carrie and Lowell, and Stevens bowed out with a stunning version of album closer Blue Bucket of Gold, which starts with piano stool-creaking intimacy and ends in an almost overwhelming barrage of white noise and white light, bringing the audience to its feet.

When the band return to the stage for the encore, it's a different show. Huddled together at the front of the stage under simple lighting, they kick off a fireside-style forage into Stevens' back catalogue, with loads of banjo and wonky trombone.

And the banter emerges with Steven addressing the themes of his work, mixing musings on the acceptance of death (he still can't get away from the D-word) with quotes from French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Thankfully his droll wit is always close by to lighten the load.

The stripped-back versions of the likes of For The Widows in Paradise and Casimir Pulaski Day provide a charming, if anticlimactic, response to the intensity of the first part.

That is until the final song - and the last of the tour - a wonderfully sparse version of Chicago from Illinois, which has Stevens' voice cracking with emotion and sparks another standing ovation.

Never has a show about death been so life-affirming.

Who: Sufjan Stevens
When: Tuesday, March 9
Where: The Civic, Auckland