Review Summary: The Age of Adz still sounds like Sufjan, but presents a whole new side to the songwriter.
I have a difficult relationship with Sufjan Stevens. It’s hard not to respect the guy’s ambition; his ability to craft albums with the sprawling scope and vision of Michigan and Illinois is truly impressive. However, those two expansive narratives of American history were compounded with a squeaky-clean sound and voice too perfect, too polished, or, to use that most unsexy of adjectives, too nice. Additionally, for a man with such a delicate and emotive voice, his lyrics could feel too distant and formulaic, as if he were using narrative to cover up a lack of something to say. Essentially, I have always considered Sufjan as balancing precariously between substance and superficiality. With five years passing since Illinois it’s been difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this new release may answer the question: should we continue to care about Sufjan Stevens?
It may have been a long wait, but the answer is yes. In fact, it feels as if Sufjan has intentionally created an album to counter every reservation I had about him. The Age of Adz still sounds like Sufjan but presents a whole new side to the songwriter. Banjo is replaced by glitchy electronics and fuzzy synths. Gone are the polite string and horn arrangements, swapped for overblown symphonic orchestrations and choirs. Thought he was too polished? Listen to the piercing electronic squeal that cuts through the title track. Too distant? The tracklisting features titles such as ‘I Walked’, ‘Now That I’m Older’ and ‘All for Myself’. And don’t even think about calling him too nice; as he asserts on ‘I Want to be Well’, “I’m not ***ing around”.
After a deceptive intro, ‘Too Much’ bursts into bubbling electronics, chopped industrial beats and synth drones, a far cry from the subtle twinkling piano we’ve come to expect. However, The Age of Adz is hardly a cliché of an artist “going electronic”. Those familiar with Sufjan’s catalogue will know he has worked in this medium before, particularly on his sophomore album Eat Your Rabbit and more recently on his orchestrated pop-symphony The BQE. His experience tells. Take the closing track, ‘Impossible Soul’, for example, a twenty-five minute epic that features electronic bleeps, cosmic strings, guitar feedback, woozy autotune, drum machine beats, spiralling synth, robot vocoder and choral chants. Many artists would buckle under such enormous reach, but Sufjan makes it sound effortless.
Whilst not as shiny as past efforts, the production remains as meticulous as ever. It all sounds incredibly impressive, but equally important is Sufjan’s lyrical shift, featuring some of the most personal lyrics the songwriter has put to tape. There’s no tales of serial killers or American presidents here. On ‘I Walked’ he sings “for when you went away / I went crazy, I was wild with the breast of a dog / I ran through the night / with the knife in my chest” suggesting at an inner turmoil barely even hinted at on previous releases. Indeed, The Age of Adz is an emotional outpouring, as if he’s been bottling everything up for the past five years. Most telling is ‘Vesuvius’ where the singer addresses himself in the third person, offering himself guidance: “Sufjan, follow your heart / follow the flame / or fall on the floor”. On this evidence, it was good advice.
Written for http://nightbus.tumblr.com