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| Review

The Great Show Accusations True at SZA’s Climate Pledge Concert


SZA performed everything from “SOS” and nearly everything from 2017’s “CTRL."

The quote invoked probably the most often when on the subject of Joni Mitchell and her 1971 masterpiece “Blue” is the one where she said that when she wrote it she was so defenseless she felt not much stronger than the thin cellophane wrapping on a box of cigarettes. I’m reminded of this excessively repeated line sometimes when I listen to SZA, not because I think of her and Mitchell as kindred spirits (though I do) or because it too describes the state SZA tends to be in when she writes her music. (Since she can be relied on to take a lot longer than imperial-run Mitchell to complete an album, an LP’s worth of emotional introspection from SZA runs a wider gamut.) It has more to do with how much it can feel when a certain song of hers really hits like the separation between her and the listener is about as thin as that delicate packaging. Few artists of her generation with her same commercial chokehold are as good at sparking such intimate I’m-here-for-you empathy as well the feeling that she is elaborating on better than just about anybody the frustrations of modern love and the attendantly fluctuating feelings of hopeless I’m-a-loser spiraling or I’m-too-good-for-this bad b*tchery when something doesn’t work out. She’s not a pop star who towers over you. It’s more like she’s sitting across from or next to you, and you appreciate, maybe even feel consoled by, the sort of should-she-be-telling-me-this oversharing her mom, per the New York Times, worries she indulges too much but without which we couldn’t imagine living once we’ve gotten an earful.

Save for a couple handful-of-second clips I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at on YouTube, I went into SZA’s show at the Climate Pledge Arena on Thursday — her fourth-to-last on a tour supporting her quasi-surprise-dropped, universally acclaimed, charts-hogging first new album in five years, “SOS” — not really knowing what to expect. I was better acquainted with a sense of dread in the lead-up. I can chalk that up to worrying about how well the body of work of a confession-prone artist can translate when their songs of close-quarters intimacy are forced to contend with the type of large stage that can persuasively expand the domain of some performers and dwarf others. 

It turns out that SZA, by turns commanding and playful in a Seattle that received her with Beatles-esque rapturement, is someone at home in the former. Strictly abiding by an ambitiously mounted nautical theme whose constantly moving props included an enormous anchor, a lighthouse, a diving board, a boat-as-a-second-stage, and an orange raft that at one point propelled her in the air deep into the audience, SZA’s imposing stage setup nicely complemented songs whose heart-on-their-sleeve emotions feel huge as is. 


SZA was joined intermittently by a quartet of backup dancers.

I still sometimes had flashes of wishing I weren’t seeing SZA at such a colossal venue. They mostly were brought on by the raft stuff, whose attempt to give extra grandeur to the bittersweetness of “Supermodel,” “Special,” “Gone Girl,” and the particularly shattering “Nobody Gets Me” felt more on the nose than conducive to the soaring quality these songs already have. But it’s tricky for every set piece at a show of this scale to land, and at this one they pretty much all did. The LED-screen backdrops, evolving from moving images of marinas to islands to submarines to underwater worlds — seasons changing alongside them — further evoked the ever-changing moods of SZA’s music. We had storms at sea for “Drew Barrymore” and “Low,” walks under waterfalls for “The Weekend,” a blissfully orange sunset for “Good Days.” There was an off-theme but still-welcome venturing out into additional cinematic homage for petty revenge hit “Kill Bill,” whose choreography — one of several tries at it for someone who charmingly moves like someone dancing uninhibitedly in their bedroom — winked at the famous House of Blue Leaves showdown from the Quentin Tarantino movie from which the song gets its name. 

SZA directly engaged with her audience very rarely — unexpected for an artist so allergic to reticence on record but also I suppose unsurprising for a self-professed introvert like her — but when she did she made clear how much she loved Seattle. I’d like to think she was pulling our leg, doing the kind of city flattery all artists politely offer on tour. But a little after declaring the Pacific Northwest her favorite place to stop, SZA gifted us a characteristically raw-nerve performance of “Ghost in the Machine,” which she’s only played live once before, at Madison Square Garden. (Phoebe Bridgers, who features on that song and sang it with SZA at that show, unfortunately did not make an appearance.) 

Covering everything from “SOS” and nearly everything from 2017’s “CTRL,” the show unfurled like an adventure at sea. Aside from a “Cinderella”-esque “The End” title card on screen after the encore, there wasn’t anything in the concert’s loose narrativizing to suggest a satisfying conclusion or happy ending. It was in league with how SZA’s music is rife with frustration and hopelessness and the occasional bursts of hard-earned confidence or happiness without resorting to anything like trite optimism when the latter is ever at last come across. SZA’s diaristic music suggests that the only way to even somewhat effectively work through life’s miseries is to write your way through it, less concerned with resolution than with detangling a mess of emotion so that it drives you a little less crazy. On record, abetted by good headphones, chances are high that what she comes up with can put you in a little bit of a funk. In concert, though, the mood becomes celebratory — an opportunity to revel in shared confusion over life’s romantic-and-otherwise injustices, able to find something poetic in the pain thanks to a singer-songwriter who can articulate our bewilderment better than we ever could.

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