Here’s the deal: Sputnikresident Keelan’s review of Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz is really fucking good. I mean like, really, really fucking good. So much so that I had to write something back at him. But before that I really need to point out that Keelan is the most profound writer on this site, someone who actually takes the time to think through what he’s writing before spilling his digital ink, and anyone else looking to figure out how to do this whole writing reviews thing should read his stuff. Secondly, this is also a roundabout response (not quite review!) to The Age of Adz itself, which is probably one of this years most bewildering records, which, for better or worse, I’d like to share some thoughts on. So with the stream of consciousness button firmly pressed down into my head, let’s keep going!
Let me get this out of the way: The Age of Adz is the mirror image reversal of M.I.A’s /\/\/\Y/\. Calm down. Now, I like /\/\/\Y/\. I wrote an over the top review saying as much. I don’t like The Age Of Adz. Let me flesh this out – Perhaps the most striking resemblance between /\/\/\Y/\ and The Age of Adz is their sheer reliance on affect, with the barest minimum tying it all together: Melodies and sounds will sweep in out of nowhere; for Sufjan, this means fleeting strings and choral lines; for M.I.A. this means glitchy spasms of synth squelches and strategic injections of noise. For both, every song functions as a sort of whirlwind, twisting and turning trying to get out of itself, creeping towards lines of flight which no structure affords them. We’re talking disjointedness and disparity, with each artist reflecting something (as Keelan put it) severely screwed up.
This is of course where the artist comparison falls down a flight of stairs, because even if you were to give that minimal similarity any ounce of credit, it’s pretty obvious that /\/\/\Y/\ and The Age of Adz are so far flung apart that they practically talk in different languages. Sufjan, as everybody knows, speaks the language of beauty – he’s a painter, magical and dazzling, and having disconnected himself from the folky resonances found on his earlier albums, The Age Of Adz floats free, warbling in a freefall of Stevens’ most ambitious work yet. M.I.A on the other hand, speak the language of violence, her music rips and tears, it’s Piss Christ and the all the rest of the Abject rolled into one, angry, stalking, stopping only to celebrate the sheer stylistic force of it all.
Now, I’m not sure Keelan would agree. He takes Stevens at his word, agreeing that the man isn’t fucking around, and finding The Age of Adz ripened by its therapeutic qualities. Myself on the other hand, well to be blunt, I think Stevens is a fucking liar. If Ulysses and The Wasteland marked a struggle for meaning, The Age of Adz is nothing less than an ironic piss take of that modernist confusion, laughing joyously all the way. Back in second year, we had a word for that sort of thing: (I’m going to risk it) the postmodern (I risked it). So oh yes Keelan, it exists. Right here. What allows Stevens to get away with it is the fact that he’s got a hell of a poker face. I mean, he’s really damn good. So good that he can wear that irony like a drag costume, and it still goes unnoticed.
Or, to put it differently, Sufjan Stevens is a troll. Which is why I find The Age of Adz so goddamn exasperating, as if he comes as close as possible to creating a serious work of art, in order to just miss it. And let me make one thing quite clear: it takes a certain kind of brilliance to do that. Sufjan Stevens brilliance. As far as it goes musically, it’s a hell of a feat: the immaculate arrangements, precise and shimmering, an electronic and acoustic all-in wonder. But I can’t shake this feeling that I’m being fucked with. And I don’t like it. Successful troll is successful, I think the term goes.
And where does this leave M.I.A? Well, I’ll admit the line becomes fuzzy, and it’s just as easy to flip the equation and pin everything I’ve accused Stevens of on to M.I.A. Which might be fair. But I can’t shake this feeling that she isn’t fucking with me. The point is, I think, that although both albums are filled to the brim with runaway sounds, it’s /\/\/\Y/\ that ends up running away somewhere, even if it’s only an anti-place, and makes for itself a statement of intent along the way. The Age Of Adz, well, it goes places, all sorts of wonderful places, but arrives at none of them; a toothless tiger, for all it’s stripes.
Alex Silveri, Oct 2010