How Does Zedd’s Debut ‘Clarity’ Hold Up 10 Years Later? A Pair Of Anniversary Shows Demonstrate It’s Still Got the Magic

A decade ago, Clarity had just hit digital streaming platforms, and Zedd had a slew of interviews on his docket. The media wanted to know: what was his goal for his debut album?

Neither the notion of playing it front-to-back in San Francisco, nor orchestrally rendering it live alongside a 50-piece orchestra in Los Angeles would likely have come to his mind at the time. But that’s precisely what happened this past weekend, as Zedd celebrated 10 years of his debut album, Clarity, released in October 2012 via Interscope Records. The album hit No. 38 on the Billboard 200 and marked a watershed moment for electronic music’s crossover into mainstream consciousness in the U.S., making Zedd an EDM-era star in the process.

This past weekend, Oct. 7 – 9, the producer played four events during Clarity’s anniversary weekend. Of them, the pièces de resistance were a special-edition, one-time-only set at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on October 7, where Zedd played Clarity (Deluxe) front to back, and an orchestral performance of the LP, live from L.A.’s Dolby Theatre and livestreamed worldwide on October 9.

“When I was working on my debut album, I didn’t really have a following. There was nobody to disappoint, and that was kind of a nice thing, because I just made the music I wanted to make. I didn’t know if anybody would care or not — it was my first album, and I think it set a precedent,” Zedd said to the audience during the orchestral concert on Sunday evening. “People were asking me in interviews what my goal was, and 10 years ago, I said, ‘My goal for my album is for me to be able to look back and be just as proud of it today as I was 10 years ago.’ And I think it’s safe to say that I am just as much if not more proud of it.”

Canvassing the sold-out shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, here are six highlights that capture the heart of the anniversary weekend events.

A faithful track-by-track setlist

On Friday, Zedd did something unusual in the context of dance/electronic music programming: he played an album front to back.

In just about any other genre, this wouldn’t be remarkable; in rock, for instance, it’s become trendy enough to be expected not only on seminal album anniversaries, but even on a whim. Nine Inch Nails played their 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, from start to finish on select stops of their 2009 Wave Goodbye world tour. Weezer similarly played Weezer (The Blue Album; 1994) and Pinkerton (1996) in their entirety during their 2010-2011 Memories tour. In 2019, John Mayer took a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden sequentially through his 2006 Grammy Award-winning album, Continuum, for no reason, other than it being something he’d “wanted to do for a few years.”

In the dance/electronic genre, though, hearing an artist play an album from front to back is a rare phenomenon. The reasons are many, and most stem from key distinctions in how the album format functions in the dance space, where music is created, consumed, and presented live differently — and often independently of an album — than it is in other genres. This was all part of the draw for Zedd’s 10-year Clarity anniversary at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

The 8,500-capacity venue, located in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, is reputed for hosting not only some of the largest concerts in the Bay Area, but also “a multitude of significant cultural events.” On October 7, Zedd’s commemorative Clarity performance was the rare event that functioned as both types. Its cultural significance was confirmed both visually and audibly by the crowd gathered at Bill Graham, with most attendees sporting Zedd merch — much of which was clearly many years old, and well-loved and lived in. Some brought flags. And, throughout the evening, virtually all in attendance could be heard singing along at a thunderous volume.

“I’m gonna be playing the whole album front to back,” Zedd said when he announced the event in May. “I’m only going to do this once and never again.”

True to his promise, Zedd played Clarity in totality. After the final second in “Epos” had expired, he exited the stage, only to return encore-style, launching into a run-through of “Stay the Night,” “Push Play,” “Alive,” and even Skrillex’s “Breakn’ a Sweat – Zedd Remix,” all from the deluxe version of the album.

The sheer novelty and once-in-a-lifetime aspect aside, excitement for the front-to-back format came from the opportunity to hear some of Zedd’s lesser-played (but no less loved) productions — like “Lost at Sea” and his “Breakn’ a Sweat” remix — live.

‘Clarity’ coming full circle visually

Throughout the evening, Zedd translated Clarity’s technical minutiae through visual production that amplified the album’s precise sonic touches. Perhaps the most impactful example came as the lights went down and the graduations of a clock’s face lit up in blue on the LED screen. With the clockwise motion of the minute hand, these graduations faded and reappeared on the screen in time with the ticking of the clock sample that loops the LP. Audible in the intro to “Hourglass” and in the outro to “Epos,” the clock ticking sample opens and closes the LP, bringing it full-circle.

It’s worth noting that the bookending samples aren’t the sole feature responsible for this closed-loop effect. At album’s end, the chords and melody of “Epos” fade into those of “Hourglass” so gradually and so fluidly that the transition occurs almost imperceptibly. No matter how often listeners have sat with Clarity over the years, invariably, some would have missed this detail. These cyclical characteristics didn’t go unperceived at the October 7 set, though. As the final moments of “Epos” ticked down (literally), the clock’s face and graduations reappeared on the screen, making this connection in an unprecedentedly visual manner.

Zedd’s attention to the particulars of the set’s production thrust this aspect of Clarity into the foreground. And, after all, it wouldn’t be a special-edition Zedd event without some sort of prominent clock element, now would it? (Zedd has used the clock ticking sample in just about every single since the Clarity-era.) This, coupled with knockout lighting effects, lasers, smoke, pyro, and new visuals, all of which were clearly painstakingly programmed, culminated in production that ranks among Zedd’s most detail-intensive, if not the most detail-intensive.

“We’ve spent well over a week just programming the songs from the Clarity album,” Zedd told Billboard. “We’ve put almost the same amount of work into this show as we would for a new show, even though we’re only playing this show once.”

Surprise! Encore!

Upon announcing the Clarity 10-year anniversary set in May, Zedd gestured to “some special surprises” to be seen, stoking interest with no uncertain exclamation: “U don’t wanna miss this!!!”

The surprise? Though Clarity (Deluxe) concludes with “Breakn’ A Sweat – Zedd Remix,” the show didn’t stop there.

To hear the four additions on Clarity (Deluxe) sequentially was already bonus enough, such that an encore wasn’t expected. On Bill Graham’s upper levels, attendees began to leave their seats and approach the exit after “Breakn’ a Sweat” had finished. This testament to just how unanticipated the true encore was lasted only momentarily. Ticket holders rushed to reclaim their seats as Zedd began what became a greatest hits-style encore, featuring “Stay,” “Break Free,” the producer’s remix of Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” “I Want You To Know,” “The Middle,” and “Beautiful Now.”

Zedd’s allusion to “some special surprises” considered, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think that Foxes (“Clarity”), Ellie Goulding (“Fall Into The Sky”), or perhaps even Hayley Williams (“Stay The Night”) might have joined him onstage for live renditions. However, the absence of surprise special guests proved to be one of the event’s strengths. By keeping the performance strictly between himself and his fans, Zedd made the anniversary set that much more intimate. The result? One of the peak moments of his career felt like one of his early shows.

The comeback of the iconic red plain flannel (if you know, you know)

In the time following Clarity’s release, Zedd’s fanbase has vastly expanded from the electro-house enthusiasts initially attracted during EDM’s golden age. His current, comparatively more eclectic following includes those same fanatics from the foundational years, as well as listeners whose support germinated from his more recent dance-pop dealings. (Since 2013, he’s clocked four Hot 100 Top ten hits, a run that began with Clarity‘s title track.)

Whether attendees could tacitly grasp the symbolism of Zedd’s attire at the anniversary set depended entirely on when they began following him. For the OG fans in the audience, the red plaid flannel that Zedd sported needed no introduction, but it got one anyway. “Yo, I’m even wearing a plaid shirt for good old day’s sake!” he exclaimed over the mic.

For context: In live shots from his shows and photos posted to his Instagram account alike in the early 2010’s, Zedd was frequently seen wearing a variation of the same red plaid flannel shirt. Put simply, red plaid was to Zedd what long, dark hair was — and is — to Skrillex. By resurfacing the style this past Saturday, Zedd nodded good-naturedly to the early days (read: before designers like Dolce & Gabbana began dressing him for events like the Emmys). 

Zedd’s classical training takes center stage

Amid the synths and his history of success on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, it could be easy to forget that Zedd is a classically trained musician who began playing the piano at the age of four and writes his music on the piano first. His performance alongside a 50-piece orchestra at the Dolby Theatre on October 9 was a sentient reminder of this.

Zedd sitting before a piano isn’t an unfamiliar image: At the two-minute and 41-second mark in the “Make You Say” music video, he can be seen doing just that. Earlier, in January 2013, wearing (you guessed it) a red plaid flannel, Zedd occupied that same perch on Late Night with David Letterman — where he, Foxes, and a small string section delivered an orchestral version of “Clarity.”

This is all to say that the sight of Zedd in front of a piano is as much a part of his career as the sight of him behind the decks. And although fans are slightly more accustomed to the latter, the October 9 event reminded attendees and livestream viewers alike that his dance/electronic music isn’t just informed by his classical background — it’s also inextricable from it.

Live from L.A., Zedd played Clarity (Deluxe) on the piano during an event that marked the album’s first full orchestral conversion and the most in-depth live display of his classical skill to date.

An unexpected “Clarity” singalong in L.A.

Neither audience at Bill Graham nor the Dolby Theatre expected an encore, but the weekend’s second one wasn’t event planned.  “I don’t know what to say, honestly, I’m speechless. This was such an unbelievable experience,” Zedd said. “I guess we’re gonna do one more. We don’t have anything prepared, so we’re just gonna have to repeat one of them.”

Minutes before, when Zedd and the orchestra were mid-way through “Stay the Night,” the audience broke out in gentle, unimposing song. Their response inspired an unanticipated encore of “Clarity” that evoked the emotive power of one of the past decade’s most-ardently loved dance/electronic songs.

“I feel like we found our groove with ‘Stay the Night.’ You guys started singing along. So we’re gonna play a song that you guys have heard tonight. If you enjoyed this new version of it, if you don’t mind, sing along,” Zedd said. “I actually really liked [the singing]. I was scared of people singing along because I felt like we wouldn’t hear ourselves, but I think everybody’s okay with it, so if you guys like it and would like to sing along, let’s do this one all together.”

Katie Bain