Review Summary: Sufjan, follow the path. It leads to an article of imminent death.
You know the end of Return of the King
, when Denethor is mad with power and about to destroy Faramir by setting him on fire, only to realize he's not dead and so, unable to reconcile himself, he hurls his flaming body unto the charging armies of Mordor? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Sufjan Stevens, Steward of Gondor, and his Battle for Middle Earth, The Age of Adz
I will let you in on a secret: I did not particularly care for Come On, Feel the Illinoise
. Yes, objectively, it’s wonderful; it is the work of an ambitious songwriter who also happens to be a lyrical virtuoso, but in essence, I felt a disconnect between the mildly obtuse album it was and the batshi
t composer behind it. Like, I dug the horns, but where was the risk
, man? Well, here it is: if you were like me and found Illinois
on the conservative side, Age of Adz
is like Sufjan playing Russian Roulette by himself and five of the six chambers have bullets. If we’re keeping the Lord of the Rings
analogy going, Faramir is all of music, which of course isn't dead, but since Denethor/Sufjan believes it to be dead, he must destroy its corpse along with himself (This probably makes Matt Berninger Gandalf, but I digress). And destroy both he does, crafting post-modern Frankensteins of pastoral folk, electronic bleep-bloops, orchestral swells, dance-pop, hip-hop, whatever. I admit what got me interested in Age of Adz
was Sputnik staffer Alex Silveri’s characterization of the current Sufjan, of him holed up in a windowless room, losing hold on an already-shaky grip of reality, letting his wild imagination consume him. But while the image of an addled brain without a focus is supposed to help us imagine a Sufjan we should abandon, I find the opposite to be true. Sufjan may have lost his sanity, but in creating the deliciously mad Age of Adz
, Sufjan Stevens has become one of the most vital artists of our era.
Because on Age of Adz
, Sufjan is doing what very few mainstream indie artists are doing right now: he’s pushing it
. He’s seeing just how far this style, this skin that he’s never quite felt comfortable in, can be stretched. There’s something inherently beautiful in all this, watching Sufjan burn his past and arise from the ashes a fucking
lunatic. Sufjan may compose Age of Adz
through the lens of The Apocalypse, but the apocalypse is his own. From “Vesuvius:” “Sufjan, follow the path, it leads to an article of imminent death. Sufjan, follow your heart, follow the flame, or fall on the floor.
” Sufjan follows everything- path, heart, flame- and falls on the floor in the most ungraceful, glorious way imaginable. Age of Adz
does not. Rather, it soars, exploiting every inch of its vast canvas to deliver winner after desperate, existential winner. Its sprawling, eight-minute title track puts Sufjan in conflict with an insistently dire hook and an argumentative orchestra, which fits, considering it’s the manifestation of Sufjan’s moral crisis. ”We see you trying to be something else that you're not, we think you're not”
he manages to get out between insistent cat calls and symphonic whistles. If this is supposed to embody Sufjan's vision of his audience, then it shouldn't be a surprise Age of Adz
is as twisted as it is. Sufjan's lost his marbles, but because this allows him to indulge every whim of his beleaguered head, he discovers ideas with ridiculous scope and incredible power.
And Age of Adz
is powerful. It’s hard to believe this beast holds together as well as it does considering its wide range of styles, but the thread that ties this jumble together is Stevens, ruminating on his loss of faith and wondering where that leaves him, and I think he discovers that he is, essentially, nowhere. To early critics who would say Age of Adz
is simply Sufjan fucking
with us (which I can understand, by the way. I mean, autotune
.), I paraphrase The Joker: Does Sufjan look like someone who has a plan? Age of Adz
’ anarchy is more the product of a brain without anything left to lose. The infamous mammoth that is “Impossible Soul” is as insane as it is because Sufjan is not giving a shi
t in the most intricate way possible. Not because it’s funny, but because there’s no reason to. The rules have ceased to apply, so why not write a twenty five minute pop suite influenced by mainstream hip hop? Age of Adz
reeks this kind of chaos, a product of constructed deconstruction, and the sound is crucial.
It’s worth mentioning this album’s contextual significance because, at least in Sufjan’s class, no one is doing this kind of shi
t. Nothing against Merriweather Post Pavilion
or Halcyon Digest
, but in an era where yesterday’s oddballs are taming their destructive impulses and emerging as pop stars, Sufjan is aging backwards, abandoning all restrictions and emerging the greatest oddball of them all. Because Age of Adz
is completely singular, engrossing partially because it's rare to see an implosion of this magnitude. I nearly started this review by comparing Sufjan to Tyler Durden, applying Tyler’s famous “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything” to this record. For this is Sufjan all over, doing literally anything, and rising the hero. But whereas Tyler Durden revels in this anarchy, I get the sense that Sufjan is deathly scared of it, which makes Age of Adz
not a celebration of anti-culture but a majestic tragedy about the loss of belief, and this is equal parts heartbreaking, fascinating, and stunning. It all makes sense in a Sufjan sort of way. And I can’t imagine Sufjan can go on making shit
like this forever because eventually he’s just going to make a black metal album on toy keyboards, but for now he is king, making one of the great, poetically inspiring burnout albums for our new time.
So passes Sufjan Stevens, son of Nick Drake and yesterday's forgotten chamber pop, gone flaming into the night.