ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz




90 — [Rating Scale] (OFFICIAL SELECTION)

This is not the Sufjan Stevens you remember. People looking for the familiar comfort of subtle harmonies and finger-picked banjos should be warned – you’ll find those elements within the grooves of The Age of Adz, sure, but you’ll get a whole lot more than you bargained for, too. This album is a tremendous departure from Sufjan’s earlier work, in a brilliant way. It’s a sort of alternate reality corollary to Illinois or Michigan, where Sufjan has been left free to roam for five years in a world stuffed to the gills with synthesizers, computers, and old hip hop tapes. Most importantly, it’s the second herald that Sufjan has returned, the once and future king of indie.

Gone are the documentary narratives of the now-abandoned fifty states project. Gone are the light-hearted song titles of Illinois. Gone are the organic tones of Stevens’ first eight releases. But the absence of the familiar, rather than leaving a vacuum, allows a new hero to emerge. For the first time since Seven Swans, Sufjan creates a non-conceptual album (or at least as non-conceptual an album as we’re likely to get) that is comprised of songs rather than stories. Rambling names like “Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All The Way Out In Bushnell” and “A Short Reprise For Mary Todd Who Went Insane But For Very Good Reasons,” are supplanted by perfunctory but descriptive titles like “Now That I’m Older” and “I Want To Be Well.” The electronic influences first teased on this year’s All Delighted People EP come to fruition, launching Sufjan’s music – which before had the potential to sometimes blur together – into a completely new sonic realm.

This new dimension suits Stevens, who finds a new inspiration in these tracks. He seems rejuvenated on The Age of Adz, speaking directly to the listener instead of simply cataloging the history of a state or the mood of a highway. Musically, he is pushing boundaries here, playing with the flex of the rules along the edges. His already pitch-perfect voice is run through a vocoder on “Impossible Soul” to chilling effect. Half-muted guitar notes on “Futile Devices” muddy the waters at the confluence of analog and digital. On “I Want To Be Well,” you can hear him savor the titular turn of phrase, changing emphasis and meaning through repetition: “I want to be well/I want to be/well I want to be/well I want to be well.”

The Age of Adz is a distinct change in style, but it is not, I would guess, a one-off experiment. To support that idea, it’s tempting to quote the aforementioned “I Want To Be Well”, with what will undoubtedly be the most frequently referenced line of the entire album – Sufjan’s emphatic refrain that “I’m not fucking around!” Quoting him thus would be disingenuous, though; that line can be construed to mean any number of things out of context. More important than the text, however, is the delivery - an on-the-edge warble that finds Stevens’ usually restrained voice cut loose. It reveals a sharper edge, a lack of care, and a plunge into new territory that smacks of permanence. It’s no coincidence that Stevens sounds remarkably reminiscent of Thom Yorke in these moments.

I find it necessary to plead with you, reader. If you are listening to The Age of Adz on computer speakers or iPod buds, I implore you to treat your ears to this album in higher fidelity. The low-end lushness is a newer look for Sufjan Stevens, and is largely lost on the tinny speakers that plague our generation. Additionally, The Age of Adz is like an aural textbook on playing with stereo channels and sonic mixes; sounds carom back and forth between ears like ping pong balls, creating a three-dimensional sound that inhabits a wonderfully full space inside your skull. Buy nice headphones, steal your friends’, or take this album to an electronics store to test out a new set of cans – you’ll reap a lot more of what Sufjan has sewn here.

It should be noted that the cover of The Age of Adz features the work of the self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, a man said to be the inspiration for the general tone of the album. Robertson was a schizophrenic artist, consumed by numerology, the Bible, and an obsession with his ex-wife. His art is full of dark confusion, paranoia, and brilliance. It’s a bit of a stretch to throw Sufjan’s case in with Robertson, but the parallels are there. For me, the most important similarity is the necessity to create – the unquenchable thirst to make art, regardless of for whom that art is made. Robertson’s home was a sanctum full of private art; is there any doubt that Sufjan has a similar stash of song snippets and orchestral ideas? Listening to this album, I get the feeling that we’re hearing a refined product of the myriad ideas that have been privately germinating for years.

The final song on The Age of Adz, “Impossible Soul,” is about as incomprehensible an epic as you will find in modern indie music – twenty-five minutes of fluctuating textures that manage an unlikely cohesion. It’s an odd finish to the album which may tempt listeners to cut off a listening session after the penultimate tune, album highlight “I Want To Be Well.” If you have the time, though, “Impossible Soul” encapsulates the beautiful juxtaposition found throughout The Age of Adz – that grab bag of styles and ideas. Classical and hip hop complexions trade minutes, tied together by Stevens’ overarching vision and omnipresent touch. At the end, Sufjan reveals the rub, the main thesis of this album full of instrumental experimentation: There’s no need to pick sides. After all, “We can do much more together, it’s not so impossible.” Words by Chris Barth.