My professor for 20th century British and Irish Literature (or, modernism, essentially) argued early on in the course that, among other things, modernism is still our current paradigm and that postmodernism doesn’t exist, yet. Right. Well he is certainly more learned than I, so I’ll bite; Let us say that modernism is in fact still our cultural realization. If this be the case then let me introduce to you the strongest evidence to support this claim– Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz
. Allow me, if you will, an indulgence (Sufjan would, after all) in exploring this idea; an idea that unpacks the three main aspects that answer the question: what does it mean to be modern? The three aspects are: to be belated, to be dislocated, and to be anxious. The more one listens to the album, the more one sees these aspects unfurl. In result this makes The Age of Adz
utterly fascinating in all of its mystery and beauty; its strangeness and familiarity.
To be belated was a curse felt by all the modernists. Yeats felt he had come too late to save religion and faith in a European society so corrupted of moral sensibility that he practically invented his own religion– the little narcissist– in A Vision
. So when Stevens reported in an interview earlier this year that he had lost faith in the process of making an album– in the making of music period– it echoed this belatedness. And so the album he created after losing faith begins with a disjointed take on the old Sufjan. “Futile Devices” sounds like the typical, finger picked, folk song that he has become known for. But “Romulus” this is not, as the reverb and electronic hum of an atmosphere indicate. Here is where we start to see another signifier of belatedness, the one of looking at history to explain the present. Eliot’s The Wasteland
, Joyce’s Ulysses
, Pounds' Cantos
, these are all collages of past works, or literal translations. The Age of Adz
doesn’t go digging through crates, exactly, but it has Stevens trenching through his own past works, visiting where he has been to explain where he is now. The electronics hark back to Enjoy Your Rabbit
, the pan flute that flutters beautifully at the end of the gorgeous “Vesuvius” goes back to A Sun Came
, those acoustic finales of the sparkling title track or the labyrinthian “Impossible Soul” go to Seven Swans
, and of course the orchestral swells are what Sufjan is simply known
Yet all this digging, like Yeats, is clearly an attempt to fix something that has severely screwed up the normally mild mannered indie figurehead. The whole album is about loss and the effects of it, which leave Sufjan simply confounded. “I’ve got nothing left to lose” he croons against the dubstep beats and haunting vocals of “I Walked”. The effects are quite clear from the outset: Sufjan has lost his fu
cking marbles. He doesn’t hide from this either, no, “he’s not fu
cking around”, he affirms in the most forceful piece, “I Want to Be Well”, a title that basically sums up the therapeutic trajectory of the album. “Now That I’m Older” comes closest to pointing out what exactly he has lost– his Maud Gonne if you’re feeling particularly hyperbolic– when he sings “somewhere I lost whatever I had left / I wasn’t over you”. His fragility, then, comes through in the skitterish, broken electronics of the album, which I admit, do border on ridiculous at times (I mean, what the hell is that farting sound at the beginning and end in the otherwise poppy “Too Much”, anyways?), but dammit sometimes a point has to be forced. Of course, this is where the anxiety comes in. Just what the hell is he trying to do anyways? Questions will go unanswered and at these times Sufjan pulls us back in with some magnificent orchestration.
And that’s exactly why this record is so absolutely fascinating. None of what I just said actually matters in comparison to what the music sounds like. How could it? If your average joe schmoe went a little crazy and wrote some paranoid singer songwriter indie album– actually he would be Daniel Johnston– but that isn’t Sufjan. This isn’t just a guy with a guitar, and while his legend has been built up by his fanbase to the point where there may just be 50 foot tall gilded statues of him somewhere in Japan, there is no doubting his talent. Quite simply he is an excellent composer and The Age of Adz
, underneath all of its whizzes and bangs, is an eloquently constructed tapestry of melody, counter-melody, harmony and orchestration. He knows how to take a good hook and add that extra moment, those moments of indulgence, and transform the track into something greater than on first appearance. On “Get Real Get Right” it’s the trombone part that finishes off the track, on “Vesuvius” it’s the continuous building of the main hook until it’s a soaring chorus of jubilation. Even better is “The Age of Adz” which is pure pageantry with a spectacular horn arrangement. So while fans may be scratching their heads at first, repeated listens will reveal the Sufjan they adored so much on Illinoise
, and perhaps, just perhaps, a better Sufjan.
Now lets take a closer look at the closer “Impossible Soul”, a song that might just decide whether someone loves the record, or loathes it. At 26 minutes, and a third of the album length, that isn’t such an extreme assertion. It starts in similar fashion to Michigan
closer “Vitto’s Ordination Song”, with warm pulsing keys before gradually evolving into the most bizzare section of the album which features auto-tune and a beat that would fit in a top 40 hip-hop track. But this coalesces into another glorious moment of joy as the chorus refrains “it’s not so impossible”. So then, maybe that bizarre moment of auto-tune is when Sufjan has completely lost his shi
, and then he has his epiphany and can move on. That’s why he closes the album off with a gentle and stripped down acoustic passage, as beautiful as anything else on The Age of Adz, he is moving on. Perhaps, perhaps not. Like any modernist work this is all simply one reading, and an album as fascinating as this is wide open for other readings. Maybe this is an extended examination of his “Existential Crisis in the Godfrey Maze”. Maybe he’s just plain fu
cking with us. But then again he’s “not fu
cking around”. No; and it doesn’t sound like it either. It sounds like someone in a controlled chaos. It sounds brilliantly disjointed.
Just don’t be distracted