Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension


2.5
average

Review

by Tristan Jones STAFF
September 26th, 2020 | 286 replies


Release Date: 09/25/2020 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Have space suit -- will shit my pants 👨‍🚀

Sufjan Stevens’ greatest strength throughout his discography, maybe, has been his ability to elevate modest melodies and concepts into a sphere of wonder and speculation. Like shining light into an elaborate prism, his ideas refract and scatter, becoming more far-reaching and wonderful than they otherwise would be if laid bare. This has been largely attributed to his chaotic-symphonic composition, validated by sophisticated touches, and to a persona that was often like a capricious anti-bard, leaning into either the uncomfortably personal, or the enigmatic and alien. With many Sufjan works, part of the listener’s interest can be in their own projecting of various themes and ideas into the silly musician’s material. Spend a few minutes reading the introductory paragraphs for his albums' reviews and you’ll see mentions of existentialism, fortitude, modernism, life, love, and so on. Just about any notion regarding his works could be justified if you tried hard enough, and that isn’t really meant to be a criticism. If one subscribes to the idea that art is defined by the listener, music with near-infinite possibilities for definition is certainly worth a listen.

With Ascension, however, Sufjan’s outlook seems more pessimistic. The aforementioned elevation of simple concepts is still here, but it’s more to the credit of nuanced production and sound selection than strong songwriting and composition. Often, the motifs wear out long before the closing moments, which themselves tend to be various instrumental codas that would be skippable under the moniker of a lesser-known artist. As P4k’s Sam Sodomsky concisely put it, the album is “kind of a drag ”, though I would argue that to be true both thematically and literally. “Die Happy” might be too obvious a target, simply consisting of the same phrase repeated. “Video Game” features lines like “I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theatre […] I don’t wanna play, I don’t wanna play ”, which would work if a sense of desperation and panic was achieved, rather than a general aloofness. The entirety of “Sugar” isn’t any better. Though I must stress, I’m not prone to attacking lyrics ad nauseam - it’s more the general feel of an album’s sound on which I feel compelled to home in, with the eventual point being that this eighty-minute outing is a bit of a sonic chore, and this isn’t remedied consistently enough by Stevens’ occasional effective choice of words. The various depressive quips throughout Ascension feel more like self-parody than self-affirmation.

On the upside, there is plenty of instrumental variety, though the lack of focus seems more the result of meandering at-home synth exploration than innovation. “Video Game” is a bit of a cross between Made in Heights and Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, minus the brightness of the former and the less-is-more futurism of the latter. The lengthy closer “America” seems to take the plot essence of a Dolce & Gabbana perfume ad and render it kaleidoscopic. High points might be “Gilgamesh” and following number “Death Star”. “Gilgamesh” should probably have been the album’s epitome, as it covers territory both identifiably Sufjan, yet treads new ground with the spirit of a pathfinder. The archaic literary references, sung with vigour missing on much of the tracklist, overtop glitchy shuffles, clatters, and unpredictable rhythm patterns yield returns that rarely repeat elsewhere. The song miraculously avoids sounding smug. “Death Star” moves with more cohesive rhythm, and hits a rare balance between fun and erudite. Similar to “Gilgamesh”, it’s like a mini-epic, which is a conceptual tactic that Sufjan should have stuck with recurrently. There is a sense of cosmic progression, shifted into hyper speed while Sufjan laments. If the rest of Ascension veered into the psychological, with more sparing production that allowed the nuances some breadth, it would all lend to a more convincing delivery.

Carrie & Lowell saw Sufjan almost disconcertingly naked and vulnerable. Ascension sees him more apathetic in his singing tone, which might be a deliberately thematic move, like a lengthy spiritual rite. It’s as though the various vocal gestures he (might have) tried in production didn’t gel with the instrumentals, so he defaulted to something more frigid. It’s a disappointing gambit, though he breaks the trope momentarily. Age of Adz partially worked because the synthetic framework didn’t detract from the massive grandiosity and the (for better or worse) hedonistic attitude. The bloated self indulgence is present here as well, but minus the charm of Adz or the fanfare of Michigan, et al. With few exceptions, Ascension is channeled into one energy level, despite the variety of sounds. It’s busy lethargy: too hive-like to be soothing, too sedated to be invigorating.



Recent reviews by this author
Nocturnerror Last Seconds Of Resentment RequiredPaula Temple Edge of Everything
Jon Hopkins SingularityReindeer Field Reports From The Western Lands
Cecil Taylor Unit StructuresDrowse Cold Air
user ratings (178)
3.4
great
other reviews of this album
letsgofishing (4)
Doing the best I can (with what I am)...



Comments:Add a Comment 
Jots
Staff Reviewer
September 26th 2020


7226 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dYi4P0xNkE



posted on behalf of sowing cuz his laptop was impounded XD jk plzdontban

GhostB1rd
September 26th 2020


7061 Comments


Ah, the superior Johnny hath returned to his rightful reviewing spot.

jk I don't read any of y'alls reviews but I'm sure it's great

Jots
Staff Reviewer
September 26th 2020


7226 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

it is what it is. i find 2.5-y reviews hard to write

GhostB1rd
September 26th 2020


7061 Comments


"Neither good, nor bad. Could it be? Average."

2.5

Colton
September 26th 2020


4186 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Good review Tristan. Album sounds disappointing

CugnoBrasso
September 26th 2020


1066 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

This album is as enjoyable as a colonoscopy

Scoot
September 26th 2020


20183 Comments


what a strangely polarizing album

zaruyache
September 26th 2020


22974 Comments


what universe are we in where sufjan drops an album and it only goes to #7 on trending wtf

Digging: Ethereal Shroud - Lanterns

CugnoBrasso
September 26th 2020


1066 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Well, that planetarium thing was a snoozefest as well.

Jots
Staff Reviewer
September 26th 2020


7226 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

eclipsed by deftones maybe idk

Observer
Emeritus
September 26th 2020


8563 Comments


Yeah this release week is stacked

Digging: toe - For Long Tomorrow

mindleviticus
September 26th 2020


10142 Comments


I don't think it's average but... it's definitely his weakest effort compared to the last few

Demon of the Fall
September 26th 2020


17201 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I kind of like this, the length is off-putting and there are mishaps but it’s generally a good time. Then again I’m not that into much of his stuff bar Illinois.

Digging: Ulthar - Providence

butt.
September 26th 2020


7998 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

surprised the avg is this low already. thought it was pretty solid but have only listened once since, ya know, it's like 700 minutes long

Digging: KEN mode - Loved

Nespithe22
September 26th 2020


8 Comments


Good album but repeats the same ideas and themes too much. In my opinion this review is overwritten which detracts from some of the excellent insights and turns of phrase throughout it.

SowingSeason
Moderator
September 26th 2020


36077 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Excellent review, it's really descriptive and makes some ridiculously well articulated points/observations. Couple things I picked up on skimming: not sure if you meant uncomfortably personal on that first para or maybe what you did is just another way of saying, I think the apostrophe in works' is errant, unless I missed the possession, "on which I feel compelled to home in" should be hone unless that's another expression I'm blind to, and "yields" would be "yield" as it's referencing "references".



I still have to hear this. I've been stuck on Fleet Foxes and Deftones but might get to this after the weekend. I was NOT impressed by the singles and I also generally dislike his super theatrical flamboyance compared to his stripped down folk ("Impossible Soul" being a huge exception). Needless to say, I'm not overly enthused about the prospects here but it's Sufjan so he has earned my time. Hopefully he'll prove me wrong.

Digging: Sam Amidon - Sam Amidon

AmericanFlagAsh
September 26th 2020


9934 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

2.5 what lmfaooooooooo

Digging: Gorillaz - Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

JWT155
September 26th 2020


14671 Comments


I've enjoyed what I've heard so far from this.

Jots
Staff Reviewer
September 26th 2020


7226 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

@sowing - it’s actually a common mistake to say “hone in” rather than the correct “home in”

@flag - yep, sry bout it

@Nespithe22 - you might be right, i'll comb through and make a couple sneaky edits



will check other discrepancies when I’m at a comp

(update: fixed, ty, mwah)

SowingSeason
Moderator
September 26th 2020


36077 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"it’s actually a common mistake to say “hone in” rather than the correct “home in”"

Oh wow you're right (I had to look it up). Weird, I always thought it was the opposite.



Based on your review this sounds like it's just a bloated and less memorable AoA. I really hope I end up connecting with it because after C&L I really haven't been all that impressed with anything he's done including side projects.



You have to be logged in to post a comment. Login | Create a Profile





FAQ // STAFF & CONTRIBUTORS // SITE FORUM // CONTACT US

Bands: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Site Copyright 2005-2019 Sputnikmusic.com
All Album Reviews Displayed With Permission of Authors | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy