Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

It's hard to feel bad for Sufjan Stevens. Some artists are pigeon-holed by overzealous blogs or their unique sound, others dig their own grave by revealing a 50-States-Project, wherein they aspire to write an album for every state in the union. I think you can guess in which category Sufjan falls. While he put himself in this situation, there are worse things than receiving reams of fan-mail begging you to do your next album on their state. I only write this preface because since 2005's Come On Feel The Illinoise!, it was widely assumed that Stevens had "Chappelle'd" out via some nervous breakdown, frustration, or some combination of the two. Bizarre project The BQE (about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, of course) notwithstanding, it had been 5 years since Sufjan had made a peep, before he discretely released his All Delighted People EP in August. The "EP" was classic Sufjan, clocking in at just under 60 minutes and featured two versions of the titular "All Delighted People" and closing with the 17-minute "Djohariah". The EP may have satisfied those who pined for any scrap of the Sufjan responsible for 53-word song titles, but rather, it was the swan song of the indulgent, obtuse Sufjan.

The Age of Adz has been deceptively billed as Sufjan's "electronic" album, and though he uses many industrial sounds and loops, I would argue that Adz features some of his most personal and beautiful work to date. He treads a very fine line here, darting between the bloops and squelches of his new tools and the harps and fluttering woodwinds he is familiar with. What keeps the songs from being jarring or discordant is Sufjan's confident voice, having evolved from a shaky whisper to a Thom-Yorke yowl on "I Want To Be Well". This versatility is impressive from a man whose earlier songs had deferred to a choir or a instrumental flourish for gravitas.

Lyrically, the songs on The Age of Adz come from another place than the sterile (though affecting) history lessons of Illinois and Michigan. There are more personal pronouns in The Age of Adz than there are in Sufjan's entire discography. Each song paints a conflicted and flawed man, one fraught with regret but also struggling to become a better man. In the astonishing "Vesuvius", he goes one step further, singing "Sufjan, follow your heart/follow the flame/or fall on the floor", something he (or anyone else for that matter), wouldn't dream of doing. It is especially stirring because Stevens used to revel in ambiguity, even in his most personal songs.

This transformative album would all be for naught if it didn't take us somewhere. Album closer "Impossible Soul" is a brisk 25-minutes, and winds and twists through every nook of the album, flushing out every trick and theme he touched on earlier. An electric guitar squiggle, celestial blinks, trumpets, evolve into a piano and an autotuned segment. After these diversions are satiated, a true chorus rises like a distant sunrise. "It's a long life/better pinch yourself/get your face together/better stand up straight" is repeated over and over until your irony sensors threaten to go off. Just as you begin to feel duped, cheated and otherwise betrayed by the preceding 70 minutes, the choir finally exclaims "It's not so impossible!" and everything falls back into place. After witnessing Sufjan dig himself out of his hole, they may have a point.

The whole album is currently available for streaming on NPR. Click here to listen.


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