Review Summary: Sufjan Stevens is not fucking around.
I sometimes wonder how self-aware Sufjan Stevens is. What with the vague, ominous statements that he “no longer has faith in the album or the song,” his dismissal of the 50 States Project as “such a joke,” and his tongue-in-cheek release of All Delighted People
last month - It’s 60 minutes long! It’s an EP! - one can’t help but wonder how much of it is him poking fun at his often-aggravating fanbase (seriously, guys, he’s not a fucking deity
.) Admittedly, self-consciousness is a hallmark of indie culture, but for Sufjan it’s a bit of a curio - after all, the hallowed Illinois
succeeded partly because of its unpretentiousness. So you can understand my interest (and worry) upon reading the official press release Sufjan's first proper full-length in five years. “Obsession with cosmic fantasies”? Arf.
And now, the wait is over. The Age of Adz
is here, and it's weird. Very weird. So weird that it's nigh impossible to describe. Not that Sufjan has ever exactly regarded convention, but The Age of Adz
is just straight-up bizarre. You thought "The Owl and the Tanager" was hard to make sense of? Wait till you get ahold of these lyrically dense monsters. And the irony is that upon first glance, this album is Sufjan's most conventional release. Gone are the short transitional tracks and ridiculous song titles. On the surface, The Age of Adz
is a typical LP. But these songs are anything but ordinary.
Several of these songs have made appearances at live shows over the past couple of years, but they've all been significantly tweaked, with a substantial amount of ProTools knob-twiddling layered on top. At times, the album resembles a Boredoms album, so disorienting (and, at times, unwelcome) are the digital squawks and shrieks peppering songs like "Too Much" and "Vesuvius". But if The Age of Adz
is sometimes buried in indulgent production, the music still resonates. Gorgeous melodies abound - "All For Myself" and "Now That I'm Older" are worthy successors to Illinois
's heartbreaking "The Seer's Tower" - and the arrangements are as intricate as ever. "Too Much" is a big sonic mess, but when achingly beautiful strings and brass penetrate the laser-fire soundscape, it's like a ray of sun peeking in through the clouds.
And then there's "Impossible Soul", the album's 26-minute closer. It's more side B of Abbey Road
, what with its fragmented structure and eclectic sound. The song (if we can even call it that) starts quietly, with pulsating synths, piano chords, and harp flourishes, then launches into a (thankfully) jangly guitar solo, before taking a few more left turns, and then, suddenly, we're in a brand new place. Sure, there are a few lyrical threads holding the track together, namely the line "it's not so impossible," but "Impossible Soul" is best appreciated as a collage more than anything else. The head-scratching moments are plentiful and seem at times like a conscious attempt to throw the listener off - look, Sufjan's using AutoTune!
- but it's the juxtaposition of these "is he fucking with us" moments with the stuff we've come to expect from Sufjan that ultimately makes the track a success. Even when it's inexplicable, it's utterly compelling.
Which, in the end, is pretty much how The Age of Adz
feels as a whole. Somehow, despite the electronics that resemble baby’s first MacBook experiments, despite the unnecessary swaths of noise, despite the complete messiness
of it all, it works. Is it the idiosyncrasies? The melodies? The interplay between the synthetic percussion and live instruments? Sufjan's willfully emotive voice? All of the above? Who knows? And honestly, who gives a shit? The Age of Adz
works even though it shouldn't, the same of which could be said for Illinois
. Hmm. Maybe this isn't such a departure for Sufjan after all.