I guess because he professes a Christian faith, because I like “indie”1 music, and because I have an interest in the ways Christians engage outside of existing “Christian” subcultures, I’ve always felt a certain affinity with Sufjan Stevens. I also like his music, but I don’t know if my appreciation has gone much deeper than these factors. It’s only recently I’ve come to grips with just how talented he really is, how far and above most mortals in terms of skill and vision he is and has become. It’s also only recently that I’ve done any notable digging into the meaning of his more esoteric (to me at least) lyrics and themes.
So yeah, I don’t really know what he’s talking about in a song like “Jackson”, and my obviously deficient education hasn’t given me much exposure to Saul Alinsky besides the page on Wikipedia. Still, I definitely relate to his songs, the sadness in “Flint (For The Unemployed and Underpaid)”, the wistfulness in “Sister”, the questions raised in “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”, and the hope and confusion and doubt in “Casimir Pulaski Day”. The kinship I feel with his most recent material, however, is different.
I took the comments he made last year in stride; Sufjan seemed to be questioning a lot of what he had been doing, but I didn’t see him giving up. I worried that there might not be another Sufjan Stevens album per se, but I couldn’t see him giving up music, and I felt like I could relate. Don’t most of us come to point where we wonder, “What’s the point of it all?” Isn’t this a healthy question to ask?
When I heard early versions of new songs on his tour that same fall, I was generally excited. He seemed to be moving beyond the dense concepts of earlier albums, and incorporating new elements into his sound. It was a good thing, and I looked forward to hearing what might come next. Finally, this past August, he released the All Delighted People EP, with it’s epic title song. Here was Sufjan Stevens, taking everything he was feeling and discussing in those earlier comments, and wrestling with it in the midst of a darker, if not entirely divergent, sound. An almost twelve minute ode to existential angst? Yes.
So “All Delighted People” was a step forward, and in some ways, a bridge to his latest full length, The Age of Adz.
Well, in lyrical tone, at least.
The early release of “I Walked” pointed to a much more electronic sound. So too the early release of “Too Much”, my favorite of the new songs I had heard on his previous tour. Gone were the free jazz freakouts, replaced with a lengthy, composed outro, all heavy laden with electronic detritus. I took it in stride, unsure of my early feelings but still confident the final, complete product would silence my doubts. At this point, it’s been close to a month and many listens since I first heard the album. Some albums take time to reveal themselves; I kind of hated Merriweather Post Pavilion on my first couple listens. And I’d say my perception has shifted, but maybe not as much as I hoped.
The strange paradox of The Age of Adz is that it is both a complete reinvention of Sufjan Steven’s sound, and almost entirely predicated on his earlier works. The electronic blips, bleeps, and squelches2 are certainly reminiscent of 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, and there were other hints to his late return to electronics in The BQE and his cover of Castanet’s “You are the Blood” for the Dark Was the Night compilation. Still, for even the most jaded Stevens fan, this must come a bit unexpected.
The Age of Adz kicks off with one of only a few folk-ish moments on the album, “Futile Devices”. Seemingly from another’s perspective, it describes times spent in Sufjan’s apartment and words of love left unsaid, a glance that quickly turns nostalgic in the light of the album’s midsection. The Age of Adz appears to focus largely on the dissolution of a relationship and the emotional aftermath of those events. The work and life of Royal Robertson has been sited as an influence, but acts largely as a backdrop and palette which Sufjan uses to express his own experiences.
As the second song begins, the aforementioned electronics make their grand entrance, all sloppy explosions and accelerating windup motors. One of my early questions as I approached the album was whether these seemingly random and initially incoherent sounds would, with time, congeal into something more solid, a structure which supports the larger movement and flow of the song. The answer seems to be yes, and no. The orchestral strings and horns of Illinois are still there, though emerging less frequently and buried deeper in the mix, no longer the focal point as on previous albums. Alongside synthesizers and the occasional guitar, they form the melodic bedrock of these songs. At times, the other electronic sounds feel draped over, floating unattached to the the rest of the song. With time, they fade into the overall soundscape of a casual listen, but something is lost. By ignoring these percussive, discordant sounds, the more melodic elements become comparatively dull. When I listen, there is an uneasy balance- there is a certain dissonance which remains at odds with the still heavily composed arrangements, a sense of unease which I cannot relate to any other album.
On those arrangements- I don’t discount his primal, primitive approach, but this is still a Sufjan Stevens album, through and through. Along with the orchestra, the largely female glee club choir persists, and they both make appearances of “Vesuvius”, lyrically perhaps the darkest and most internal song, but also most reminiscent of his previous work. The electronics play a smaller role here, but the song still devolves into a stretched distorting of Sufjan’s voice before returning with a more traditional choral outro, complete with the festive jingle of sleigh bells.
As far as Sufjan’s vocals, the most metaphorical ink has been devoted to two moments. The first occurs in “I Want to Be Well”, which ranks among the best of the album. Radiohead comparisons are apt, with breakbeats reminiscent of “Optimistic” or “Sit Down. Stand Up.” The song finds Sufjan addressing questions of relationships, life, and mental heath, culminating not with the title refrain (though a poignant moment in itself), but with the line that follows, repeatedly: “I’m not fucking around”. You believe him. He even channels a little Thom Yorke with his unhinged, wavering vocal delivery. The second attention grabbing moment is found deep in the heart of the 25 1/2 minute closing track. Over that time, “Impossible Soul” segues through at least five distinct parts, one of which finds Sufjan lamenting in autotune, sounding a little like a clarinet at first, before becoming highly reminscent of your favorite modern R&B. It’s certainly surprising, but not the only change from previous albums’ vocals. Most of the album finds Sufjan singing through various effects, most subtler than the autotune but generally creating distance and uncertainty between himself and the listener. Like the orchestra, Sufjan’s still there, but he’s a smaller figure in this brave new landscape.
“Impossible Soul” deserves a closer look- the ideas and sounds in this composition alone could be the basis for an entire EP, if not full length, of a less ambitious artist. It begins as a plodding keyboard ballad, filled out with harp, assorted acoustic percussion, echoey vocal effects, and an electric guitar solo. Next, a solemn discourse on courage by Annie Clark (or is it Shara Worden- the internet verdict seems to still be out on that one, but it sounds more like Annie to me), all swaddled in burbles, strings, and analog scrapes and scuffs, which then evolves into a call and response with Sufjan and Co. A retro-futuristic horn section leads to a final refrain of “don’t be distracted”, repeated whisper-like as trumpet piece reminiscent of “Riffs And Variations On A Single Note…” joins the blips and beeps. Next, the autotune, where Sufjan mourns the “stupid man in the window; I couldn’t be at rest”, as a hushed choir keeps time. A disco beat emerges; this is dance music, Sufjan-style. The slightly awkward choir accompanies Sufjan as the myriad reflections from the mirror ball shine over the wreckage: “it’s a long life/better pinch yourself/put your face together/better get it right/…boy, we can do much more together/it’s not so impossible!” The chorus breaks down into mumbles- “do you wanna dance?”- and a call response between a female chorus and a Daft Punk robot. More electronic beats. Strings and horns appear, and the song fades with a single held tone, as the acoustic guitar reappears. Sufjan closes with a confession- “I never meant cause you pain/my burden is the weight of a feather”. Sufjan contrasts his lover’s refrain with a different assessment: “boy, we made such a mess together.”
It’s not hard to be drawn into the vast landscape of the epic closer, but some of the shortest songs are the most immediate, and the most unequivocally successful. “Now That I’m Older” is a vaguely Gregorian piece, beautiful and rising, a lucid look back on the relationship that was and is no more. The bed of voices undulate as Sufjan describes: “there’s so much travel, yeah/now that I’m older/someone else, can see it for myself”. “Bad Communication” gives melody to the squelches and vibrations, as Sufjan alternately chides and calls out for his lover: “don’t look, don’t walk away when I am speaking…I love you”. The effects on the vocals that undergird “All For Myself” make them sound like a pump organ, supplemented by electronic trills and swells, as the lyrics reach for the sublime: “I want it all for myself”. These pieces seem the transmogrified remnants of the romantic idealism so present on Illinois, and are among my favorites. This album leaves me to wonder what would happen if Sufjan continued the experimental, but dropped the epic, for a bit? Is he even capable of such a thing? These tracks may be the closest we’ll get.
So what of all this? As I survey the big picture, I remain in conflict. There are moments that feel like the best thing Sufjan has ever accomplished, and others where it feels like his Prophet ‘08 and assorted clatter are slipping just beyond his control. The frequent tension in the layout of all these noises creates a certain unease that hasn’t fully faded in repeated listens, but which is perhaps indicative of my relationship to the lyrical content, which sometimes hits too close to home. There are moments that are not easy to listen to, so wrapped up in hope and doubt and confusion- there remain spots of obtuseness, here and there, but without a doubt, this is real, and much more explicit than anything he’s done before.
Ultimately The Age of Adz gives fills out our picture of Sufjan in ways we haven’t seen before. It’s interesting to see what elements remain from the work of his past, given his intentions to deviate so strongly. It’s also fascinating to see what’s changed. It’s beautiful to see someone grappling with the challenges of their life and coming out, stronger than ever. Given the choice of “Illinois 2: New Joysey!” and this, I’d gladly choose the latter.
It’s become harder in recent years to define indie, since it’s come to represent not only a methodology but also a sound and a subculture, but feel free to use any of those definitions here. ↩