Review Summary: It's dark, it's nothing like Illinois, it's brimming with electronic noises and--somehow--it feels like a beautiful release; a cathartic sigh.
I’m not feeling the Illinoise.
Well, I guess I do in the first 2 minutes and 11 seconds of folk artist Sufjan Stevens’ newest release The Age of Adz, but it’s quickly drowned in the whirring, cyclical sounds of electronics and the blips and bleeps of synthesizers.
It’s been five years since his critically acclaimed full-length, but Adz is much more akin to Stevens’ earlier release Enjoy Your Rabbit than Illinois which was the second release in his supposed endeavor to cover all 50 of the American states. This time around, though, we don’t hear as much of Stevens’ banjoes, mandolins and harps; instead, we get wavering electronic noises, whistles, staccato bleeps and bass drops that sound lifted right out of the most recent radio-rap, top-40 hit (see “Age of Adz”).
Stevens has certainly taken a dark turn in his music writing in the past five years. If you’re familiar with his song “You Are the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, then you’ll have a better idea of what to expect on Adz. With 11 tracks, it breaches an hour in length, and there seems to be an obsession with drum tracks and all things electronic. Although, the opener “Futile Device” gives us a little taste of what most fans know Stevens best for: his finger-picking, folk-like soul. Right from the beginning the listener is introduced to a mysterious character that Stevens seems to address throughout the album only as “you.” He sings in a whispery voice, “And I would say I love you / But saying it out loud is hard”; this is the Stevens we know well. But he quickly turns it around and “Too Much” flashes through the speakers with a garbling noise reminiscent of drowning and crescendos into Oriental-sounding beats. Prepare yourself for the uncanny.
The Romantic imagery from his previous releases is almost completely gone. Stevens’ past thematic elements have been quite selfless, often dealing with the commonality of mankind and the specific stories of people in America, both well known and obscure. On Adz, Stevens is focused more on himself, and often, it’s rather bleak. At times this album almost feels too selfish, too self-centered. Sometimes it sounds like this album is nothing more than the scribbles of a teenager’s angst-ridden diary in which Stevens contemplates growing old (“I wanted so much to be at rest / Now that I’m older”), complains about miscommunication (“I’ll talk, but I know you won’t listen to me”) and fusses over misleading others (“I never meant to lead you on / I only meant to please me, however”).
That last quote is from Stevens’ closer, “Impossible Soul,” which runs just over 25 minutes, featuring moody synths, poppy beats, gang chants, auto-tune vocals and five sections of songs like chapters in a book. It’s in moments like those when Adz ceases to feel like a diary, an overflowing of powerful emotion. There’s no doubt, it most certainly is a deluge of great sentiments and emotions, but it feels as if Stevens is carefully orchestrating those emotions as he lets them spill from his mind. Grand gestures are what keep Adz an impressive collection of cathartic experiences.
The most cathartic moment is in his song “I Want To Be Well,” and by itself, this song clearly defines the shift in attitude Stevens has made in his mysterious five-year period since Illinoise. He sings about dying in bed surrounded by fairly ordinary people, and we listeners finally get a taste of his flourishing flutes and blaring horns. Then he personifies illness as an entity that stalks lonely people, he forgives someone who is killing him (physically or figuratively, it’s hard to tell) and then, with a swelling, quavering voice he repeats, “I’m not / I’m not / I’m not,” and finally it’s released, “I’m not ***ing around!” the professed-Christian singer-songwriter yells with more gusto than he’s ever shown before.
It’s true, Stevens seems to be a little more selfish these days. He seems more focused on his inner battles, and it can feel a little indulgent at times, but after carefully listening through the album in its entirety, Stevens’ sincerity is quite plain. For those who don’t know, in an interview with magazine Signal To Noise, Stevens said he was generally disheartened with the idea of the CD in today’s world. In an age of peer-to-peer file sharing, Stevens said he didn’t really believe in the album as a concept anymore. Well he obviously wasn’t intending to never make another album again, but this time he’s clearly not holding anything back, and he’s not trying to be cute. Seeing as how he showed us all that he’s not afraid to drop the F-bomb anymore, maybe this is just Stevens’ way of flippin’ us all the bird.