ALBUM: The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens

Although it’s been five years between Sufjan Steven’s triumphant Illinois and the new Age of Adz, the indie troubadour has been far from silent – a full-length collection of b-sides and outtakes, a box-set of five Christmas EPs, a mixed-media symphonic composition, producing a gospel-folk record (2008’s fantastic Welcome to the Welcome Wagon), and contributing several one-offs to various compilations (including the 10+ minute “You Are The Blood: on last year’s Dark Was The Night compilation) is quite enough to fill five years for just about anyone. And that’s not even including the surprise All Delighted People EP that popped up last month. I’m just saying, for all that’s been said about “Sufjan’s Return:, he hasn’t really been that absent.

He did experience a bit of a creative crisis following his creation of The BQE though, and it sounded for a little while like he may not even produce another album. He was fairly open in interviews about his concerns about creating music in an album-format and the futility of writing songs in the download generation, as well as his turn from precious indie folk to spacey electronic compositions. So I’ll admit I was worried for a bit that we really might not see Sufjan for a while. Gratefully, that’s not the case, and instead of disappearing into some mountainside cave, he’s given us The Age of Adz, a challenging record that’s different than anything he’s ever done before. Frankly, it’s different than anything anyone’s ever done before. Indeed he has traded in his banjos and acoustic guitars for blips and bloops and space-age dance beats – in interviews he’s described how he didn’t allow himself to use those instruments he was so comfortable with, instead trying to write songs from a completely new starting point. On top of that, he didn’t allow himself the luxury of his usual thematic songwriting – there is no US state or New York expressway or Chinese zodiac to tease meaning out of – so instead he had to turn inward for his source material – resulting in some of the most personal and explicit songs we’ve ever heard from him.

Completely pulling out the rug from under his own songwriting techniques, both sonically and lyrically, might prove an ill-fated artistic exercise for most artist’s – but like I wrote after seeing him perform some of these songs last year, this music is still unmistakably Sufjan. It’s also unmistakably brilliant.

The album starts with “Futile Devices”, a quiet ode to awkward brotherly love that introduces a concern that Sufjan’s alluded to often lately: that words themselves are futile devices, so what good is a songwriter whose main tool is, well, words? He spends the rest of the album trying to convince himself (and us) that they’re not quite as futile as they seem. And let me just say (SPOILER ALERT) he succeeds. Oh man, does he succeed. In fact, immediately following that admission of doubt in his own ability is the completely brilliant “Too Much” – a magnificent merging of his newfound boundary-stretching and good old pop musicianship – resulting in a beautiful composition that is immediately enjoyable but somehow manages to reveal itself more and more each time I listen to it. It makes a case for one of my favorite songs of all time, let alone on this album.

mp3: Sufjan Stevens – Too Much
from the album The Age of Adz (buy it here)

Although the album has no overarching theme, its pulsating sound-collage approach is inspired by the work of the painter and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson – whose apocalyptic images depict comic-book aliens and vengeful angels against science fiction backdrops, and are often strange, angry, childish, and tragic all at the same time. While his influence can be felt through-out the album, the only song that seems to reference the painter directly is the title track, “Age of Adz” (“Adz” is apparently a misspelled “odds”, referring to Robertson’s penchant to litter his paintings with misspelled text) – a sprawling epic about death and the afterlife that may be one of the most profoundly moving and dramatic songs in Sufjan’s catalog. It’s beautiful and grotesque and completely mesmerizing, and it’s a perfect thesis for the album as a whole. While nowhere else seems to explicitly conjure Robertson, songs like “Get Real Get Right” seem to owe more than just a little to the painter’s bizarre worlds of alien visitors calling earth’s sinners to repentance. That song can be kind of silly and might have been a low-point of the album, except for its fantastic climax that I just can’t bring myself to malign. I’m just going to go ahead and say this album has no low points.

As the album progresses and without any characters to project himself onto, Sufjan lays himself bare on several of the songs in a way he never has before. He recalls youthful folly on the poignant “Now That I’m Older:, calls himself to action in the third person on “Vesuvius”, and makes an explicit confession on the penultimate track, “I Want to Be Well” (explicit in the Parental Advisory sense: he repeats the phrase “I’m not f***ing around” no less than 16 times). There are times that the confessions are a little uncomfortable (like in that particularly strong-worded example), but never inappropriate or insincere. After listening through the record countless times already I can’t find an ounce of pretense. These songs sound like someone honestly search for truth the only way he knows how, littered with painfully honest admissions like “I must do myself a favor and get real get right with the Lord” and then not much later, “why does it have to be so hard?”

The record closes with “Impossible Soul” – a 25-minute epic that unfolds in five suites – a love song that somehow manages to convey every aspect of a relationship with honesty and candor. This is the song that is most monstrous in its undertaking, utilizing every weapon in Sufjan’s arsenal, from twirling woodwinds to triumphant horn sections to bombastic choral swells to straight-up sweaty disco beats and even several verses in Auto-tune. It sounds ridiculous I know, but the execution is breathtaking. It all climbs to a dizzying crescendo in the fourth suite as angelic choirs proclaim “boy we can do much more together – it’s not so impossible!” before spiraling back down to earth to its intimate finish – just a fragile finger-picked guitar and Sufjan’s wounded voice admitting in the final lines “boy we made such a mess together.”  Never has a songwriter sounded so exposed to me than he does at the end of that feat of a composition, and I hope he’s better for it. I certainly am.

mp3: Sufjan Stevens – Vesuvius
from the album The Age of Adz (buy it here)

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