Last November, Paste‘s Kate Kiefer penned a feature on a unusually forthcoming Sufjan Stevens that laid to rest any question of whether the erudite songwriter would ever continue his proposed 50-state project. “The whole premise was such a joke,” he told Kiefer, before detailing how his verbose multimedia endeavor, 2007’s The BQE, exhausted any sense he had left of the worth of the album as a valid medium. He was literally and creatively tapped out, experiencing a sort of “existential crisis” that eventually obstructed his ability to “find [his] way back to the song.” For those who took more to the baroque, folks-y accessibility of Michigan and Illinois than the left-field experiments and classicism of The BQE, this must have been worrisome. Before 2007, whether he liked it or not, Stevens was one of the most fawned over artists of the decade: Bookish types loved his narrative prowess and musicians of all stripes envied his dexterous abilities on multiple instruments. Even his boyish looks invited regular, superfluous chatter. A few years removed from the phenomenon of Illinois, however, and Stevens sounded increasingly troubled, leaving us with little clue what direction his work would take next, if it would take one at all.
Then, of course, the Internet was set ablaze in late August of this year when Stevens posted the All Delighted People EP to Bandcamp, a long-winded collection of songs that walked a fine line between the “new” and “old” iterations of Stevens as songwriter and composer. Given how laden with classical instrumentation his work was before The BQE, it’s irresponsible to suggest he suddenly morphed into a composer in 2007, but the point remains that, as Stevens indicated himself, The BQE forced his perspectives to evolve, so it should’ve been unsurprising that three of All Delighted People‘s eight songs were over eight minutes. Nonetheless, the response from critics was mixed, and then downright confused when his label, Asthmatic Kitty, announced that Stevens would release a full-length bathed in electronica quickly on the heels of the EP. The Age of Adz (pronounced “Odds”), it was called, would see Stevens remove the conceptual tenor of his most renowned work for songs that were more “primal” and “personal.” And, while it’s true that the record is largely devoid of character sketches, The Age of Adz is profoundly more sweeping than the label would have us believe, a cohesive set of songs that are alternately remarkable and strenuous to engage. Don’t worry, Carles, Owl City’s not coming anywhere near this record.
Proof that The Age of Adz is more than a simple evolution to a synthesized palette is clear from the record’s inception. “Futile Devices” features a plaintive electric/acoustic guitar melody that’s met with Stevens’ whispery, cool vocal and the casual support of a piano as he sings, “You are the life I needed all along,” setting the pace for the heartache and romanticism that’s to come. “Too Much” follows with the pop electronica that the label promised, at first a gurgling, glitch-y, bleep-bloop nod to Dntel before a cacophony of strings, horns, piano and scattered drums carries the song to its close. Then, the title track, which buries any remaining notion that The BQE exhausted Stevens’ ability to compose on an exalted scale. Borderline theatrical, though not campy, “The Age of Adz” initially sounds like the soundtrack to a futuristic Exodus as an epic chorus of female voices lays atop stop/start orchestration and swirling electronics. Like the rest of the album, the song is better understood in movements or slowly mutating colors than conventional, verse-chorus-verse descriptors. Indeed, despite being laced with parts that regularly repeat, The Age of Adz is less a pop album than a contemporary art piece. And, it works for the most part, seamlessly shifting between the warm, frazzled sounds of electro modernity and the epic cadence of classical giants.
The album’s title is a reference to the Apocalyptic art of the late Royal Robertson, a “black Louisiana-based sign-maker (and self-proclaimed prophet) who suffered from schizophrenia, and whose work depicts the artist’s vivid dreams and visions of space aliens, futuristic automobiles, eccentric monsters, and signs of the Last Judgment.” So far as I can tell, Robertson is present here in spirit more than word, but when Stevens invokes him, the results are inspired. “Get Real Get Right” has a fantastical swagger, it’s Glass-ian strings and horns intersecting a loose, swinging beat as he sings about astral goblins and, you guessed it, Biblical prophecy. It’s by far the closest he comes to the storytelling of Michigan or Illinois on the album, though hardly the only track that relies on literary devices. “Vesuvius,” a reference to the volcano that laid waste to the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79 , is rife with metaphors of pagan and religious origin before it turns intensely personal, as Stevens infers that he is Vesuvius, harboring “the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” He sounded a similar note in his interview with Kiefer when he remarked that “we’re all capable of what [John Wayne Gacy] did,” referring to the serial killer who he sings about with breathtaking candor on Illinois.
Though there’s plenty to dissect within the record’s 85 minutes, the final two tracks will arguably invite the lion’s share of attention. On the penultimate “I Want To Be Well,” what starts as a familiar arrangement of upbeat, spinning woodwinds and electronic swells turns into processed breakbeats, blown out synths and a veritable look inside Stevens’ head as he seems to contemplate suicide. It’s difficult to tell if he’s issuing a threat when he sneers, “I’m not fucking around,” or if the threat is hurled from the ghost of Robertson, but the message is telegraphed nonetheless. Doubting himself in the face of “ordinary people” with “ordinary histories”, Stevens appears on record more vulnerable and provoked than ever before, a startling moment of intimacy that perhaps hints at his creative crises, unwanted fame, or that of a spoiled relationship. For its part, “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute excursion into the bleak predicament of the previous song, followed by a call-and-response redemption at the hands of a forgiving lover. Despite the anxious, forlorn darkness he endures for most of the song, though, Stevens emerges well-adjusted, thirsty for peace and incensed with hope. (An aside: Kudos to whomever can discern how many tracks of guitars, keys, autoharp, drums, strings, vocals — chorused, solo and autotuned — and so on constitute this song. Suffice it to say, Stevens exhibits an ambition that recalls BjÃ¶rk in her more lucidly adventurous states.)
I’m not convinced the arc of the record needed to take so long to resolve, but it undoubtedly provides a finessed, thought-provoking experience along the way. In addition to its length, there has been much a-do about the electronic nature of the album, and while it’d be ridiculous to ignore this evolution, I found that, by the third or fourth song, the synthetic tapestry begins to take a backseat to the foreboding, exposed narrative of Stevens as failed lover or pathologically insecure, making him more relatable in the process.
More objectively, The Age of Adz will divide not just audiences but individuals, making them itch for the comfort of Stevens’ banjo and unflustered, literary demeanor on the one hand, while making them thankful for his honesty and ambition on the other. A tension that comes natural in The Age of Adz.