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1st Listen: Sufjan's "The Ascension"
1Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

1. Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse

Ok this beat’s got me bopping along already. Wasn’t expecting Age of Adz, but the first few seconds of this song def give that impression. Ok this is building - Is Sufjan about to do a beat drop? No just gave away to chimes and back to the beat. Typical Sufjan falsetto over it, but dang it works so well. Ooh he just jumped an octave when he sang “time for innocence” (I think those were the lyrics) and it worked really well for me. There’s that autotune. This is sounding more and more sinister as it goes on? Dance-sinister. Extended outro really adds to the sinister feeling, pretty tech-apocalyptic in terms of the images it’s conjuring in my head. Like this is actually make my heart run a little faster. And then it drops off - I almost wish it had ended full cacophony mode. 8.5/10
2Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

2. Run Away with Me

Strings with a lot of effects on them to start this again. Autotuned Sufjan, a lot slower than the last one. Starts with the chorus. Definitely still more Age of Adz vibes, but much darker than anything on that release. This is a slow jam but I could still see the chorus getting stuck in my head. Getting strong biblical vibes from this second verse, but still apocalyptic. I like Sufjan at his Christian metaphorical best, so that’s a good thing for me. Another somewhat extended outro, but not as long as the last one and more of a slow fade with the beat. Very haunting song. 8/10
3Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

3. Video Game

I admittedly did hear each of the singles once, so this is where I got the idea that this would be more synth pop. Let’s see how it fits into the album. The drumbeat at the start is already different from what’s been coming. “In a way, I wanna be my own redeemer” - Love that line, reads like Carrie and Lowell. Feel sort of hypocritical listening to this since it’s all about Sufjan not wanting to be idolized and here I am anticipating this album like crazy and writing about it the second it was released. But I digress. This is catchy and I think the least “Sufjan” song I’ve ever heard in terms of sound, but it’s still undeniably him. Lot of repeated lyrics in these first three songs, all based around the title. That’s different for Sufjan. And again, a longer outro. This was better in context of the album. 7.5/10
4Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

4. Lamentations

Ok the title of this has me prepared for sad Sufjan, but it’s starting like some sort of Burial track, which is already altering expectations for me. This is a cool listen with headphones, lots of sound jumping back and forth. The production on this in general has been so clean so far and this song is exception. Entirely based around electronic beats, I think each of the songs before have at least featured some piano? Love love love that choir coming in and it seems like we’re getting an entirely choral ending. That song was almost four minutes but felt much shorter. 8/10
5Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

5. Tell Me You Love Me

“My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything” - First line right out of the bat. Seems more similar to Run Away With Me, slower jam. Almost sounds hymnal? Although obviously a modern hymn with like dance beats and autotune. This is really beautiful. Love the layered and overlapping vocals. This ending is absolutely beautiful, holy cow. Just repeating “I’m gonna love you” but singing out in a way I’ve never really heard Sufjan sing before. And the building, holy cow I have chills. Again, a chilling outro. My favorite here so far. 9.5/10
6Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

6. Die Happy

Spooky piano track at the beginning, sounds like it should be at a haunted circus. Is this just him repeating “I wanna die happy” the entire time? Still getting haunted circus vibes, although maybe more of a haunted ballet. Which does track with the work he’s been doing recently with Justin Peck. Curious to see how this builds, it’s already gone on too long to be considered an interlude I think. More sounds are coming in, static included, and it sounds very claustrophobic. I don’t know what this electronic frog/boing sound is, but circus vibes are still strong. Ok here’s the build, it’s either going to explode or all go away. Oh hell yeah Sufjan beat drop (kind of, obviously not like a dub beat drop). That build off I think is worth it. Ok mostly worth it. This sounds cool but I’m not sure I need almost six minutes of it. Interesting more abrasive beat coming in to close it out. Hmmm. 6.5/10
7Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

7. Ativan
Driving beat, but again much darker. This entire thing sounds very dark for being as dance-able as some of it sounds. These lyrics sound a little more traditional Sufjan, but more sinister. He just rhymed “afterglow” with “embryo”. Ok now “I shit my pants and wet the bed” but it worked? This song seems centered around anxiety and the sound definitely reflects, there are some effects that mimic screams at parts. Only two verses again, chorus repeated three times. Outside of the sound (obviously) this is probably the biggest departure from past Sufjan, so far there hasn’t really been anything story driven. But even that sounds wrong, because it’s clearly introspective and so driven by Sufjan’s story. Again, apocalyptic. Definitely seems to be the theme and he’s nailing it. It’s equally abrasive but also very enjoyable to listen to. Feel like this was the most smooth transition into the outro so far, with it ending with it ending with a string movement. 9/10
8Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

8. Ursa Major

Whoa strong start, getting straight to it. Again, getting strong Burial vibes off of this beat. Sufjan is doing some things with his vocals that are definitely knew, that first delivery of “I wanna love you” in the chorus is a prime example. Almost a yelp. Sufjan is angry and God is at the front of his burn book. Very little to no hope in any of these lyrics and any hope provided is almost immediately dashed in the next line. Following the same Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Chorus structure that’s happened a few times. That was cool. 8/10
9Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

9. Landslide

Love this first verse, lyrics are super clever. Even though there hasn’t been a lot of genre switches, all of these songs have sounded unique enough that it’s not wearing on me. For being beat heavy, that’s certainly an accomplishment. Sorry that I’m using the word “beat” so much. Did Sufjan just do a vocal riff? Or maybe more of a sad yodel (as in emotionally sad). A little guitar solo over the electronic stuff here, has there been a guitar in the rest of the album? Really like this instrumental section with the guitar solo, it fits really well. Some repeated lines from that first verse coming here, I like them just as much the second time. This has been the most interesting song so far, which is saying something, and also maybe my favorite. Could still do without all of these extended outros though. 9/10
10Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

10. Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh? Time to talk about some immortality I’m assuming. Another slower song, but with a caustic beat behind it. Again, that suffocating feeling is back and hasn’t really gone away. There are some high pitched electronic flourishes happening here that really help create that environment of anxiety. Like as in they make this kind of hard to listen to in a good way, they are all the way at the front of the mix when they pop up. Best atmosphere so far, that was amazing. Again though, that extended outro doesn’t need to be there. 9.5/10
11Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

11. Death Star

Heaviest song so far, but also the vocal melody is giving me really strong 80s pop vibes. These abrasive high pitched effects that have shown up in songs really do a wonder at creating the emotional space for this album. They’re using sparingly enough that they’re not grating, but often enough that they can really shape the listening experience. This is the angriest Sufjan’s been so far too, like on the border of being straight up mean. Aaaaand another outro. At least this one sounds kind of interesting. Ooh no it tricked me and led back into the song, ok. 9.5/10
12Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

12. Goodbye to All That
Whoa we were 45 seconds in before I released this song started. It and Death Star had a seamless transition and very similar beats (if not the same), but this one is obviously much brighter. I can’t tell if the lyrics are happy or not though, kind of go back and forth. Still kind of caught off guard from that transition between tracks, these two are basically the same songs with a few key differences. I think I like Death Star more though, the anger fit the beat well. This is still quite good. F*** me another ambient outro. 7.5/10
13Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

13. Sugar

Ok again, heard this once before and loved. Curious to see how it translates into the rest of the album. I know nothing about electronic music, but I really do feel like each of these songs are incredibly unique. Like I’ve never heard anything like them before but they’re still undeniably Sufjan. Love that random operatic vocal that just came in. Extended intro as opposed to outro. Ok vocals come in about three minutes in. I love the way he says “sugar”, it’s almost more like “sugah”. Sounds very glitchy. Again, a lot of focus on repeating lines, which I think has happened in every song. It works, but I can’t iterate enough how different this has been lyrically from Sufjan’s past work. In context, this actually might be one of the weaker songs. I like the atmosphere it creates, but it’s not nearly as interesting as what’s been happening on the rest of the album. 7/10
14Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

Ok title track here we go. Crazy that there are only two songs left but almost 20 minutes. This sounds more like some classic Sufjan, or at least as classic Sufjan as we’ll get on an album like this. It’s very beautiful and lyrically more similar to his past work. I can’t wait to dive into these lyrics. This is beautiful. Very nihilistic, which is new for Sufjan. That was certainly needed. This choral outro works very well. 10/10
15Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension

15. America

And the lead single that I listened to when it was first released almost three months ago now. I do love the “My God, why have you forsaken me?” vibes. “The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia” This works so well as a closing track. The hints of art-pop and glitch-pop that have been so prevalent throughout are just underneath the surface. Using Christian allegories to describe America work really well for me, to the point where I wish there was more of it. That teaser of Sufjan lyrics was so tantalizing. But I get that the sonic atmosphere of the album was just important to the message as the lyrics (if not more important). The pain and anguish as this builds is real though. Only halfway through and I cannot remember at all what comes next, but this emotional explosion is working. Is this about to turn into a five minute long extended outro? Enough variety in this outro and enough that makes it sound like it really is wrapping up the theme. A dark album. 9/10
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