Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
(Asthmatic Kitty - 2010)
So at long last a new Sufjan record. We feared it may never come. Sufjan had hinted before that he didn’t see the point in writing songs any more. He had moved into grand orchestral compositions (the BQE - a whole record about a road), and guesting and arranging on many albums (including The National - High Violet).
No, The Age of Adz is not another 50 states album. That was enough of a millstone to hang around one’s neck. He never intended to complete the project anyway, it was all for press.
So what is it? Well first the good news - it is songs in the usual sense of the word - verse chorus verse (almost). But the (perhaps) bad news is that it’s all electronic. Gone are the acoustic instruments and in are the drum loops, instead we are treated to verse, chorus, bridge, backbeat. Gated reverb. Autotune. Space echo.
It’s all inspired, not by an american state, but by the apocalyptic paintings of outsider artist Royal Robertson (1930-1997), whose work is used for the album cover and interior design. As such it features a song about snake-skinned aliens descending from the skies. Sufjan appropriately locks himself in the toilet before erupting in religious fervour: "I must do the right thing! Get right with the Lord!"
This reference is interesting. Sufjan is adored by evangelicals as he has in the past created beautiful songs depicting Abraham, the Transfiguration and death on a cross (To Be Alone With You). However on this album, (I Want To Be Well) full of his trademark sincerity he uses an expletive, screaming “I’m not f**king around”. I’m sure he’s not but it will be interesting to see what reaction this provokes amongst some quarters.
But the new record - The Age of Adz - is it good? Should you buy it? How does it compare to the timeless brilliance of Illinois?
Well the answers to those are probably:
1 - Yes, in places brilliant, in others not so much.
2 - It’s a Sufjan record. Of course.
3 - Different, at least at first glance.
It opens with “Futile Devices”, a delicate hushed guitar song which was just what the doctor ordered, nothing scary there. Next up is the standout track of the album - “Too Much”. Sufjan, reckoning that he’s got you to track 2 without too much issue decides to make a statement of intent. Drum loops roll, synth go, layer upon layer - check. It sounds different to the previous records since Enjoy Your Rabbit but it is simply painting the same painting with a different colour. At the heart of the song is a good melody, a catchy hook, and trademark backing vocals. It’s a great song.
The Age of Adz is characteristically a very clever album. As we have come to expect the tracks are full of great syncopation, rising layers and terrific melodies but it is intentionally challenging listening in places. Think of listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco) it takes quite a few listens to get past the distracting beeps and bops and to find the songwriting at the centre. It ends with “Impossible Soul “ a 25-minute piece, that amalgamates elements of folk, hip hop and anything else Sufjan could find on the recording studio floor.
I Walked, is another example, it opens with a drum loop and keyboard, but proceeds to tell a delicate story. The whole album deals with the personal and primal: love, sex, death, disease, illness, anxiety and suicide conveyed not obliquely, but with urgency and immediacy. Perhaps it is easier to speak of such things with a loud drum loop over the top.
Good artists challenge you, to follow them, to move, not to rest on what is comfortable. Sufjan does this, and I’m glad he does but, am I the only one disappointed that there isn’t more banjo?