Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010)

(Asthmatic Kitty)


When you left me
I went crazy.

- "I Walked"

The followup to one of the most celebrated albums of the last ten years is, in a word, fascinating. The songs are slower, more personal, more aching than Illnoise, all packaged in a wisely overstated, occasionally silly, usually beautiful hyper-media pop parlance that lightly brushes musical touchstones ranging from John Lennon to T-Pain. The Age of Adz is both Sufjan Stevens' most assured album thus far and his most uncertain bout of navel-gaze. As an audio document of a truly brilliant performer's deepest thoughts, The Age of Adz is indispensable -- a vaguely surreal painting of Stevens as American adventurer looking inward. You really don't need anyone to tell you to listen to it, I hope, and you probably already have. So I'll assume you did and then we'll talk about it.

By the stopwatch standard, the only major American artist who's probably released more music in 2010 than Sufjan Stevens is Joanna Newsom -- and this after a pop-oriented silence of four years, five if you don't count the stopgap outtakes collection The Avalanche. Like Newsom, Stevens is blessed and cursed with a restless creative spirit; his music, like Newsom's, is tightly composed, gentle but biting, vividly pretty -- at times ridiculously, mockery-invitingly pretty. But as an artist, Joanna Newsom rails from the direction of rationality; if she has outbursts, they are constructed with a thought to every detail. It isn't so much that Stevens doesn't care where each note falls as he is willing to give vent to every incongruous, scary, buried thing that travels from his brain to his fingertips. An unfiltered oddball, you might say; where Newsom gives the impression of someone who knows exactly how to express herself, Stevens is constantly letting everything go and then doubting it. These are two kinds of genuine artists, their approaches and tastes in noise so similar, their pathology of ruthless creating identical, their music finally on opposite extremes.

The Age of Adz, Sufjan's sixth album, offers a startling portrait of an artist's entire world, no selective process of saying what and when visible (not that it doesn't exist), only a feeling of every word and every sound being felt and honest and a piece of a man. Just enough time has passed since Sufjan Stevens' last album, Illnoise, that his warm, fragile voice is suggestive of another era. It always seemed to come from a place we weren't necessarily permitted to know. Now, when he sings, that otherworldly quality has given way to a recognition. It's a more powerful tool than ever, and by diving headfirst into his most eclectic recording, he finds its best-suited purpose. No longer just falling amongst ornate arrangements, it's a ghostly wail today above unfamiliar terrain, allowing us the luxury of a guided tour with a man we know. Still, even friendly eclecticism has its enemies, and a lot of people are upset that Stevens' new LP is, well, "different."

Different, like, skittering drum machines and a chorus of "I'm not fuckin' around!" on the crazed, jilted "I Want to Be Well." Different like the purest pop in the man's catalog, albeit with an ominous undercurrent, on "Get Real Get Right." Different like "I Walked," a wrenching programmed breakup song on which he demands "Do you think of me now?" amid tortured analyses of minute dumpee details like the lack of a goodbye kiss. Different like the unhinged, scary, gorgeous "Now That I'm Older" which will send listeners racing back to the recent EP's moving but overwrought "Djohariah" to reevaluate the ambitions focused and realized here. And different kinds of babbling-book beautiful on the absolutely classic "Vesuvius," which is pure Sufjan, though even it contributes the memorable self-referential chorus "Sufjan, follow your heart."

So yeah, it's different, but only meaningfully different in a way hardly anyone's talking about. I admit to being taken aback when I heard "Too Much" in advance of the album -- less experimentation than pedestrian goofing off, it sounded like maddening radio pap. But this is deceptive. For one thing, the opposite is just as prevalent; disregarding a bit of extra atmosphere and the words, the two-minute opener "Futile Devices" speeds a five-year gap to an untransformative instant. Stevens' consistency of craft is a miracle, seeming not to have weakened one iota since the surely draining Illinoise experience. His songs and ideas are as bracing as ever, if not more so. The change most have found jarring is the entrance of heavily electronic-leaning production, utilizing synths, drum machines, computer bleeps and bloops, and sporadic tools such as AutoTune to create a phantasmagoric, ever-changing backdrop that seems to move and evolve as fast and as unpredictably as Stevens' brain. The songs operate in fits and starts that approach something like whimsy, but it seems to come from a far deeper place than is probably the norm in precious electro-folk. The songs are still intimate when he feels like it, but like the preceding EP All Delighted People, Age of Adz finds Sufjan exploring an expansive, intricate wall of sound, augmented here and there by strings and choir, usually doing absolutely nothing conventional. The result is an album that, indeed, sounds like nothing (no one) else.

However, while these new sounds and effects are hardly window dressing, they serve to disguise the most personal, harrowingly broken songs their composer has written to date, offering his most fragile performances as a singer. Less than twenty seconds into the record, here he is pulling the blankets over his head on the couch belonging to the ex he misses horribly, like some masochistic twist on "Hey Jealousy." He isn't Antony Hegarty, but he is walking wounded. As much as the intimate productions of Stevens' two States albums and Seven Swans frequently disrupted and offset the intensity of the huge subjects he tackled, the musical toying and tinkering replace the guard that Stevens once put up within his writing. This experimental music is not about experimentation; it is a conception. It's about loss, fear, dread, all manner of dark things, but mostly a broken feeling, seemingly expressed best by coldly programmed machines.

The masterful dupicity is best exemplified by the title track, on which filthy Depeche Mode synths collide with a melodramatic arrangement and deeply affecting, audibly pained singing, the plastic noises only deepening the human connection -- CFTPA writ large. And by the way, analyze this: "I'm sorry if I seem self-effacing / Consumed by selfish thoughts / It's only that I still love you deeply / It's all the love I got." The kitchen sink production lends Stevens the fearlessness necessary to give vent to words and emotions free of his typical poetic bent, as absent of boundaries of lyricism as of genre constrictions. At the very least, it is his greatest achievement as a vocalist thus far; there are moments in which he gets to That Point, you know? The staring-up-from-the-abyss-toward-the-open-window, throwing the head back, giving the self away Point. These songs are gut-splitters, and his submission to them is a life-affirming accomplishment.

Only thing is, the shock that's greeted this adventurous LP betrays sort of a naivete about Sufjan Stevens' prior career, and moreover, demonstrates an odd distrust of individualistic pop music making that seems to have crept into Rock sometime during the '70s. (Hip hop has never suffered from a fear of the tirelessly inventive half-crazed genius, but for whatever reason, within "alternative rock" only Beck has carried an ignorance of genre boundaries to platinum territory, perhaps because his choices tend to be safer, less direct and expressive.) First off, Stevens has never committed himself to the obvious. His old rarity "The First Full Moon" is a defiant and blissy feedback explosion that suggests spacey Britpop. His second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, already displayed an interest in electronic music. And most importantly, an even rote examination of his discography reveals a musician completely unwilling to relax. The only thing that would shock me more than The Age of Adz sounding like Illnoise would be if it were a dirge, devoid of hooks, instead of the often charmingly infectious pop record it is (listen especially to "Get Real Get Right" and portions of the controversial "Impossible Soul"). Like no one since Prince, whose '80s albums serve as an interesting ancestry to what Sufjan is doing here, Stevens is expert at matching avant garde, leftfield music with mass audiences via his fixation with the earthy, the expressive, the heartfelt.

And like Prince, he is a consummate showman. There's a case to be made that some calculation is at work here, at least on business terms. Stevens probably likes the idea of people creating a rumble about a radical departure from his biggest success; though it too displays craft and purpose well-suited to the central lyrical conceits of the album, the cover art by troubled artist Royal Robertson seems designed to confound those same people, even though if anything it fits well with the corny in-jokes populating the front of his last LP. Robertson was a fabled schizophrenic who flew into a seemingly permanent rage upon being divorced by his wife and forever afterward created images of science fiction space creatures screaming misogynistic insults at one another. The oblique sympathy and glimpse of grotesque hatred in his story feels like a classic Sufjan eyeballing examination of Discomforting Things, a visual representation of the wronged man buried deep inside him slash us who says and thinks horrible things, such as the bleakly cynical "Don't walk away when I am speaking!" on "Bad Communication." How telling that the sentiment is made almost serene by the intriguing, retro-futuristic Atari FX surrounding it.

In a recent interview, Stevens showed a remarkably progressive viewpoint toward the changes in the music business and how they affect perception of the album. He is a fan of the Internet free-for-all that allows additional vent for a prolific artist and thus opened the door for something now economically viable like the All Delighted People EP, an hour-long oddity that would've been unthinkable a decade or two ago. He also enjoys the lack of "event" now afforded a new LP release. I tend to agree, but there are cracks. First is that the final track here, the 25-minute "Impossible Soul," feels more like four songs of tangential relation strung together, and sure, they belong together, and sure, Sufjan feels they must be heard together, but in another age it wouldn't have been necessary to glue them together. (We'll talk about Lovesexy later.) The annoyance of this may be less than obvious until you imagine everything on Abbey Road from "You Never Give Me Your Money" to "The End" grafted together as a single cut. The overwhelming nature of the track somehow works against it, as grand as the music is.

And then there's the matter of momentum. With a five-year lapse, did Sufjan lose his audience? I couldn't figure out, given how many people were altered by Sufjan early in the last decade, why more hype didn't seem to be attending a record this long-awaited. It's just long enough for the Illinoise interest and goodwill to have faded, not long enough for Stevens to acquire a mystique with its own commercial viability and conspicuous absence. A new album in the three years after Illinoise would have warranted far more excitement, I think, than at this stage, when the artist has receded just enough that people are starting to need a reminder. That's the part of me talking that misses people looking forward to, marking their calendars for a new record. I got in the spirit and wouldn't listen to NPR's stream of Adz or any of the leaks, only hearing it on its actual release date. What can I say? I'm a sap.

The thesis statement of Age of Adz is buried in "Now That I'm Older": "I'm not over you," he confesses, and the story never goes much further than that. But the telling, sad details that anyone who's lost a lover will recognize end up carrying the album, and will resonate enough to end up being the bulk of its legacy, long after the quaint sonic tricks' novelty fades and we're left with another set of marvellous Sufjan Stevens songs. How about that.

All Delighted People EP (2010)


  1. Great review! I like the Prince comparison, I thought of that while listening to the album too.

    Typo in this sentence, I think: "He also enjoys the lack of "event" now afford a new LP release"

  2. Hey thank you Grant! And thanks for catching the typo, I usually don't see those for months.

  3. seriously dude, you understand music in ways that are so far beyond me it's unbelievable. great review, man. absolutely great work here.