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.
, 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.