Review Summary: paranoia, and stuff.
“I lost my mind,
I lost my life,
I lost my job,
I lost my wife.”
Sufjan Stevens has written about this kind of thing before. He’s written about disillusion. He’s written for downtrodden towns and downtrodden people, and, most importantly, he’s written about what- who- they’ve lost. And maybe that’s why I find Michigan
so absorbing. It’s not about the state, it’s about who lives in the state; the kid who sees his family crumble in “Romulus,” the desperate worshiper in “Oh God, Where Are You Now"” and, of course, the guy who ends up with nothing- not a friend in the world- in “The Upper Peninsula.” He doesn’t know who he is anymore, and it’s moments like this that make us realise this Michigan
postcard isn’t as rosy as we’d have it be- maybe it isn’t a postcard at all. This is Sufjan Stevens at his best; a realist rather than an idealist, a man who writes about losing alongside winning. To borrow once more from our lost man: “I’ve seen my wife / at the K-mart / In strange ideas / we live apart.” Seven years on, The Age of Adz
maps this lost man. No, not in Michigan, we’re done with geography and concept, but rather in name. He never had one before, but now it’s Sufjan. Our comic-strip hero has come to life, and the synthesizers he plays are his way of turning the pages.
The Age of Adz
will shed light for every Sufjan fan who wanted to know what exactly about their favourite album was “gimmicky.” It will explain why Sufjan no longer believes in “the song” because, ultimately, it is him giving up on the
song and making it his
song. I get it now; no matter how personal Michigan
(or, for those of you frowning at me, Illinois
) was, it wasn’t about its composer. It was simply by him. And the more I look at “The Upper Peninsula” the more I see it as a character-piece, no less important for being someone else’s story but explicitly not Sufjan Stevens'. And The Age of Adz
is right to be glitchy, spontaneous and freaky; it’s Sufjan transforming into that character. Throughout the album he battles insecurity, love, and above all, himself
. He goes crazy just thinking about it, to the point where the only person he can talk to is himself (“Sufjan / follow the path / it leads to an article of imminent death”).
And so we have The Age of Adz
, a musically polarizing record that isn’t about the ‘shock factor’ the cynics will say it is; the twenty five minute electro-pop anthem/ballad/hip-hop mix makes sense and the auto tune is even more necessary. This isn’t Sufjan’s ‘*** you’, it’s Sufjan realising that he doesn’t know a thing. Oh, except one thing- the song. He’s always called it his greatest strength, and he’s right: this chaotic mess is kept together in a gorgeous pop package. “Too Much” clings on to itself with irresistible choruses before exploding into something just as hopeless as its lyrics (“there’s too much riding on that / there’s too much, too much, too much love”). “The Age of Adz” is Sufjan realising that he’s become Royal Robertson, the abandoned outsider artist the album supposedly revolves around. It’s a gorgeous composition in spite of its desperation, with the electronics played out in unison to the orchestration- this is perhaps the greatest strength of Sufjan’s song on The Age of Adz
- being lost doesn’t mean abandoning everything he once knew, and the baroque pop still fills the album in its many corners. The arrangements on every track here are thriving and huge, always strung together perfectly even when Sufjan sounds fit to explode. No, this isn't a publicity stunt. This isn't new wave Stevens
. There’s so much to The Age of Adz
- trivial things like the dissonant guitar riffing in “Impossible Soul”- that makes it impossible to think Sufjan is alienating us. He's pleading with us.
“Impossible Soul” is, of course, the talking point of Sufjan’s 2010. Its shifts are dramatic and irrational, but it will still come across to fans as one song rather than five. That’s a big deal, considering this song shifts from disco dancing to acoustic guitar at the click of a finger. But “Impossible Soul,” whether you see it in fragments or as a whole, illuminates The Age of Adz
all by itself; it moves from love lost to heartbreaking paranoia, and then from a bouncing lust for life to a resignation of loneliness; “we can do much more together” becomes, with the album’s last gasp, “we made such a mess together.” And the music is just a window on Sufjan’s mind; it is eccentric when he is eccentric, it is panicky when he panics, it is sombre when he is sombre. As for the concept, Royal Robertson is merely a pseudonym; The Age of Adz
is written by a mad man, yes, but it is an album in which that mad man realises himself. And he relates it to his music because it is the only thing he knows anymore; why he went crazy, love (“I Walked”) and that
he went crazy. Nothing about the state of Ohio and nothing about gospel stories. He knows nothing but madness.
Oh, and the song. That's a dangerous mix. Tim Kasher knows.