Written for The Phonograph.
Sufjan Stevens’ decade-old career has produced eclectic albums both folksy and electronic, with songs about everything from God to the Chinese zodiac, from cancer to a serial killer. If Stevens has any deficiencies, nobody’s going to list a lack of ambition among them.
For all his daring leaps into a sometimes stagnant indie world, Stevens has fallen prey to a loss of confidence since his graceful, decade-defining Illinois hit the ground running in 2005. It was to be the second in a series of fifty albums about each of the United States, but that dream never came to fruition. The concept rarely sounded anything more than a drunken bet, and last year he acknowledged that it had been “such a joke”, even though he’d believed it himself for a time. Teetering on the brink of an “existential creative crisis”, he implied that he might never release another album.
His fifty states project might be dead in the water, but his wild creativity, apparently, is far from over. In fact, the crisis has produced The Age of Adz, his first full album in five years and the most intensely challenging yet. His songwriting style hasn’t changed much from that of Michigan and Illinois, but those albums’ devotees might just run screaming from the way Stevens commits the songs to record this time round – his new arrangements represent a technological shift of near Kid A proportions. The gorgeous chamber-folk accompaniments that made Stevens’ name give way to grand orchestration, which itself is frequently obscured beneath swathes of complex, apocalyptic, and occasionally even – shock, horror – nasty, electronics.
Adz doesn’t start on the aggressive tack, though. The simple acoustic guitar of opening track ‘Futile Devices’ provides something of a false sense of security. The second it’s over, the bubbling synths kick in on the attention-grabbing ‘Too Much’, after which the arrangements rarely calm down.
In the busier tracks, especially centrepiece ‘Get Real Get Right’ and the title track, the scattershot nature of the instrumentation is more enthralling than frustrating. It’s on the more introverted ballads that fans are likely to yearn for Stevens’ folksier days. ‘Now That I’m Older’ and ‘Vesuvius’ would both have been stunning, afforded a totally acoustic approach. Even without it, the latter, with its mellow piano, personal lyrics (choice example: “Sufjan, follow your heart, follow the frame or fall on the floor”) and eventual yelped climax, is peculiarly affecting. It’s not Illinois, but it’s pretty special.
If the sheer number of musical ideas shot through each arrangement strains the listener’s heart, it’s a stress that resolves spectacularly at the album’s climaxes. Penultimate track ‘I Want to be Well’ is a prime example. The indignant “I’m not fucking around!” coda feels like an emotional breakthrough, the likes of which Stevens has never touched on before. All that remains once it’s over is the lengthy winding-down of epic closer ‘Impossible Soul’. Its numerous sections are joined by abstract, ‘Revolution 9’-worthy segues, and he even introduces the odd bit of – gulp – Auto-Tune halfway through its 25-minute length. There’s a knowingness to its (and the album’s) closing line: “boy we made such a mess together”.
On first listen, the restlessness of Adz’s arrangements might make it seem like more of an album to admire than to love (no doubt, some listeners have already fallen by the wayside). But despite what might be called a lack of focus, its deliberate complexity begs for repeat listens. Whilst Stevens’ songwriting is the same as ever, the intense feelings that rise out of his new instrumental style are completely original – for that breadth of vision, The Age of Adz warrants recognition alongside any other Sufjanic age.