Front Page Reviews & AIR
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
The author apologizes in advance for the length of this review
Oh, dear. Where to begin? Perhaps no indie album of the last decade has built up as much anticipation as this one. Since Sufjan Stevens took over the indie world with Illinois in 2005, he has released an outtakes album (The Avalanche, 2006), a 5-disc holiday collection (Songs For Christmas, 2006), a modern-classical-instrumental full-length ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (The BQE, 2009), numerous contributions to compilations (mostly covers), and, most recently, an odd hour-long “EP” of random original songs from the last few years that didn’t quite fit his new direction (All Delighted People EP, 2010). It seemed like Sufjan was trying to do anything but focus on the daunting task of making a new original album to follow up Illinois. He even wondered out loud in interviews whether he would keep writing songs or releasing albums at all, he was so exhausted physically and creatively. Then, hope for a new album was rekindled this June by an interview with The National’s Bryce Dessner, who said that Sufjan was definitely in the studio working on his new album, that it was totally different than his previous work, and that it would “probably blow people’s minds.” So there was that. When the All Delighted People EP was released without warning in August, it was made clear that this was not the new album of rumor; the forthcoming full-length Age Of Adz was announced the following week. Needless to say, expectation had reached a fever pitch.
Personally, I was trying to temper my expectations. I thought Illinois and Michigan were masterpieces, Illinois being a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. And I knew Sufjan couldn’t simply repeat himself; he had to move on and try new things (this was confirmed with All Delighted People, which, while enjoyable, just proved that retooling the same sort of musical approach would only result in negative comparisons to Illinois). However, most artists’ attempts to “re-define themselves” don’t end well, so I was wary, yet still hopeful that Sufjan’s new direction would be successful. It soon became evident, however, upon listening through The Age Of Adz in its entirety, that this was much more than just an artist trying new approaches to keep his music fresh. The Age Of Adz is, in fact, the sound of an artist (and a musical genius at that) in the midst of a total identity crisis – not just musically, but existentially, spiritually, and sexually.
I know that sounds like a lot to say, but I don’t think Sufjan leaves us any choice here but to wonder about such things. After immersing myself in this album for a couple of weeks, it’s the only conclusion I can come to that gives the artist the benefit of the doubt. If it’s not as serious as all that, then the album is ridiculous. If it’s just your standard breakup record that happens to end with a 25-minute “it’s not you, it’s me,” it’s a totally self-indulgent exercise in wankery that should be dismissed and forgotten. However, if it is in fact the sound of Sufjan in genuine crisis, Adz becomes impossible to dismiss. It becomes compelling, even riveting, but not necessarily easy to listen to. At points, listening to Adz becomes very uncomfortable – and not in the good way. It’s not uncomfortable because the artist is revealing truths about yourself or the world that you don’t want to think about. It’s uncomfortable because the artist is revealing things about himself that you’re not sure you have a right to know.
In the midst of all this, it almost feels beside the point to talk about the songs as songs, for instance to point out that “I Walked” is a pleasant gift of Sufjan-style synth pop, or that “Now That I’m Older” has a beauty different from any of Sufjan’s previous work, or that “Vesuvius” is the best synthesis of Illinois-style writing with the new electronic sound, or even that the infamous 25-minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” adds probably ten minutes of unnecessary repetition, noise, and nothingness to what still could have been a sprawling 15-minute masterpiece (yes, I’ve actually added it up). None of this seems to matter once you put yourself in the world of Adz, because, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to spend most of your energy (if not all, and if you don’t give up) trying to figure out what it all means, taking every blip, noise, word, or awkward moment as an intentional expression of who-knows-what-he’s-trying-to-convey. I’m going to try my best here to explore what he’s conveying, with apologies to the artist for intruding on his privacy. But, in a way, Sufjan leaves the listener no choice. There is no other way to approach it. Like I said before, The Age Of Adz stands or falls on authenticity, and if it’s genuine, it demands analysis of the artist’s seemingly fragile psyche.
The album’s hushed, acoustic opener, “Futile Devices,” gives the initial impression that not much has changed since Illinois. Here is Sufjan the folky singer-songwriter singing about watching his beloved play guitar and crochet. But, while he throws around “I love yous” (which he does uncomfortably often on this record), he worries about saying them out loud while sleeping on his unknowing beloved’s couch. Then the cryptic last verse: “You are the life I’ve needed all along / I think of you as my brother / although that sounds dumb…” While Sufjan’s sexuality has been debated among his fans for years (and this is only the most obvious example here), this song brings the question (for both him and us) to the forefront. A song like “Predatory Wasp…” (from Illinois) didn’t ask the listener to understand its personal references (“Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him”) in order to grasp the overall universal themes of love, youth, fear, and loss. But “Futile Devices” is so personal and specific that the listener has no way to escape its literal meaning. Sufjan then, seemingly aware of this, closes with the line, “And words are futile devices,” ending the song abruptly and unleashing a torrent of electronic blips and squishes to introduce the next song, “Too Much,” and the rest of the album. It’s as if he’s saying that he no longer can explain his feelings with these simple guitar songs, and even if he could, we probably wouldn’t understand.
For most of the album thereafter, his voice is filtered through various effects, buried in the mix, or just plain hard to make out amid the unrelenting electronic beats and noises – and I think he meant it this way, for the lyrics themselves are also more vague, if not opaque, especially at their most specific, as if we’re dropping in on a conversation between two people we don’t know, with no idea of the history between them. This quality permeates the two most accessibly “pop” songs, “Too Much” (if a song in 7/8 time can be considered “pop”) and “I Walked.” They sound like love songs, but the lyrics are ambiguous and awkward, even as they are passionately and convincingly delivered - particularly in “I Walked,” where the verses are an immaculate mixture of melody and confident vocal performance.
After “Too Much,” we are hit with the album’s existential tour de force, the eight-minute title track– a grotesque, haunting, and, in the end, heartbreakingly beautiful piece of spiritual questioning about death and the meaning of life. But Sufjan isn’t any more sure of anything here than when he was talking about love. Though a well-documented Christian (his album Seven Swans even told a few Bible stories), Sufjan seems to be questioning his faith here as well. In the chorus he sings, “This is the Age of Adz [whatever that means], eternal living!” before he tells us that “when it dies, it rots.” The term “eternal living” is confusing, especially as Sufjan, in the confessional final section, takes the more humanist mantra: “When I die / I’ll rot / But when I live / I’ll give it all I’ve got.” The rest of the song’s lyrics are more complex still, full of hard-to-decipher lines about eternity, the weight of time, the “premonitions of believers,” fantasy vs. reality, and a veiled reference to the face of Jesus. In the eight minutes of “The Age of Adz,” Sufjan raises the stakes for what this album is about, preparing the listener for everything that is to follow, and – frustratingly – giving as much insight as we’ll get (until the end) about what it all really means.
Throughout The Age Of Adz we are confronted with impossibly vague lyrics delivered passionately and desperately, combined with music that jumps around from electronic business to orchestral chaos to washy choirs and strings, without ever settling down anywhere for a couple minutes. It is apt that there are recurring lines about not being “at rest,” which seems to be what Sufjan is searching for. And while (given the nature of this album) we could go on and on discussing and debating what each song and each line could mean, it’s probably best to simply acknowledge the “not at rest” theme and then skip right to the closing track, which takes up a third of the album’s running time.
“Impossible Soul,” while certainly impossibly long, and possibly over-indulgent, does indeed deliver to the listener a final, all-encompassing meditation on the album’s main themes. The lovely first section (reminiscent of Michigan’s “Vito’s Ordination Song”) begins by specifically addressing a woman as the “lover of my impossible soul” and showering her with apologies for “freaking out,” “wigging out,” and generally “trying to be something that I wasn’t at all.” Then, although it’s unclear whether he’s talking about this relationship, love in general, or his faith, he drops one of his most explanatory verses:
Seems I got it wrong, I was chasing after something that was gone
To the black of night, now I know it's not what I wanted at all
And you said something like, "All you want is all the world for yourself"
But all I want is the perfect love
The second section features a woman’s voice questioning him for everything he’s just said, asking him, “Do you want to be afraid?” and, “Do you want to be alone?” before finally, “Have you failed to feel delight?” to which Sufjan yells, “No, I don’t want to feel pain!” The woman’s voice attempts to teach lessons about the nature of love, life and death while repeating, “Don’t be distracted,” which must be hard for a guy with all these electronic noises buzzing around in his head. Then, apparently his head (or conscience, or however you interpret it) begins to sing to him, calling him a “stupid man in the window” who “couldn’t be at rest.” Oh yeah, and his conscience sings with auto-tune, which for some reason is not particularly surprising. Then, after some beats sputter to life and Sufjan counts off “1, 2, 3, 4!” we are launched into the disco dance portion of the song, featuring a chorus of singers reassuring us (and Sufjan) that “it’s not so impossible!” While it’s fun to hear Sufjan rip off the synth riff from “The Final Countdown,” this section goes on for way too long, repeating the lines, “Boy, we can do much more together!” and, “It’s not so impossible!” until they degenerate into a whisper that’s taken over by a vocoder. Then the chords and melody get all dark and foreboding as deep male voices take over the refrains. Finally, just when you look at the ipod and see there are still a few minutes left and think about turning it off, all of the sudden everything is gone and a couple of pretty, finger-picking acoustic guitars come in for the song’s final section, in which Sufjan apologizes again (“I never meant to cause you pain…I never meant to lead you on, I only meant to please me, however”), but his girl won’t let him go (“You tell me, boy, we can do much more together”). So he has to own up, telling her he’s “nothing but a selfish man” who wants “nothing less than pleasure.” He even asks, “Did you think I’d stay the night? Did you think I’d love you forever?” before observing, “Boy, we made such a mess together.” And that’s where it ends.
It’s clear that there’s much more going on here than your standard breakup. Sufjan seems to be questioning his ability to love a woman (or anyone), his belief in God, and perhaps even his ability to keep going through life at all. He employs an angelic voice, his auto-tuned conscience, and his chorus of backup singers to get him through it. All this makes sense on an album where the artist consistently doubts everything about himself. In the end, though, that’s what this album is about: him. Everything that is explored – the beloved, death, God – is an avenue down which Sufjan is pursuing his elusive self, trying to be “at rest.” There’s Sufjan calling himself by name in “Vesuvius” (“Sufjan, follow the path! Sufjan, follow your heart!”). There’s a song called “I Want to Be Well” (where he informs us he’s “not fucking around”), and even a song called “All for Myself.” How you feel about this album will ultimately depend on how much you care about Sufjan. There may be a small group of the avante-garde out there that loves this album solely for the music, but, for the most part, if you don’t care about Sufjan himself, you won’t care about The Age Of Adz.
It’s probably clear by the length of this review that I do care. I care about Sufjan Stevens. He has shown a remarkable ability to capture the imagination of his audience and inspire them in a positive way. This is a very rare and beautiful thing. Unfortunately, whether disoriented by fame or the hardships of life in general (or even a mysterious illness), Sufjan seems to have lost his bearings. And this makes listening to The Age Of Adz an incredibly sad experience. It seems like he’s been locked in his own windowless room (or New York) for too long to consider the crispness of a blue fall sky, the smile of a child, a selfless act of kindness, or cool river water on your feet in the middle of summer. Hopefully Sufjan Stevens remembers these things as well.