Review Summary: A worthwhile listen, but all in all not as inventive, original or experimental as it seems.
We’ve come to expect a lot from Sufjan Stevens in the five years since his most widely praised album, Illinois. To the devoted Illionis fan (which I most certainly am), Age of Adz can come as a bit of a shock- what are these noises? That’s not an orchestra!
It is definitely a departure from his previous work, which has usually been either highly orchestral or centered around folk instrumentation and soft vocals. Upon playing the first track from Age of Adz, Futile Devices, it seems that Sufjan hasn’t changed much, soft guitar and piano dominating the song (though there is something decidedly different about his vocals- a heavy echo that usually isn’t there). However, the second track, Too Much, opens with strange, rhythmic sounds that seem more like they belong to a noise music group like Sleigh Bells than to Stevens. It’s only when the vocals begin that the song is instantly recognizable as his work, with his distinctive soft voice and usual vocal layering.
The title track has more obvious fingerprints. While there are heavy noise elements, they are arranged in a more rich orchestral fashion, typical of his older albums. There are also flutes, violins, and the ever-present pulsation of tubas, another staple of his previous albums. The rest of the album seems to run the same course, mixing noise and standard instrumentation in a way that only Sufjan could pull off. They serve to contrast each other and to keep the listener on edge. He also uses noise elements to create a mood of tension or stress on certain tracks, while lowering their prominence or removing them entirely at times when a calmer atmosphere is called for.
The album concludes with Impossible Soul, the epic final track clocking in at 25 minutes. While individual themes and pieces of it are quite good, it feels disjointed at times, as if it were several shorter tracks strung together. However, this is only a technicality, and does not decrease the quality of the music or the album overall. Age of Adz, though not quite the masterpiece fans might have hoped for, only falls short in comparison to Sufjan Stevens’ previous work. For most others, this album would be a crowning achievement. It is, overall, a very worthwhile listen.