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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: The Age Of Adz


1) Futile Devices; 2) Too Much; 3) Age Of Adz; 4) I Walked; 5) Now That I'm Older; 6) Get Real Get Right; 7) Bad Communication; 8) Vesuvius; 9) All For Myself; 10) I Want To Be Well; 11) Impossible Soul.

General verdict: What happens when Animal Collective are fronted by a Christian rocker..

There is something strikingly different about the very first track on Sufjan's fifth proper studio album, ʽFutile Devicesʼ, something I cannot capture quite well at first, but then it hits me: the echo. A very simple trick, but somehow it gives the song, which consists of nothing but a quietly picked rhythm guitar track (later on, you get a few piano chords thrown in for support) and a vocal part, a layer of depth that none of his previous records had. It does not turn ʽFutile Devicesʼ into a great song — in fact, the greatest thing about it is that it reminded me very much of ʽSun­riseʼ by The Who, providing a much-needed excuse to relisten to that classic ballad — but it gives this weird premonition that maybe you are not going to have to simply sit through yet another bunch of Illinois outtakes this time.

A premonition that does come true, but not in any expectable way: after the deceptive intro, The Age Of Adz launches into full-on electronic mode. Drum machines, glitches, samples, digitally treated vocal overdubs, hip-hop and trip-hop time signatures, all the works — this is the most computerish Sufjan ever got since we were offered a chance to enjoy his rabbit almost a decade back. What triggered the change is a useless question — more useful would be the question of why it did not come sooner than that, since these days the absolute majority of art-pop people eventually switch to circuit boards, and from that point of view, Sufjan's 50 States Project, not to mention the BQE orchestral diversion, was more surprising in terms of instrumentation and pro­duction. But I guess that even somebody as smooth and calm as Sufjan Stevens eventually gets bored following the same formula.

Interestingly, The Age Of Adz is also very personal. The ethnohistorian temporarily takes a break, and in his place appears a sophisticated, but fairly straightforward troubadour — this time, it is all about relations, a difficult and confusing topic for Stevens if his lyrics are ever to be taken at face value. Some of these songs are about girlfriend problems, others are about God problems, and most, as it often happens, might be about both at the same time. That his most intimate album to that point would also turn out to be his most electronic one might just be a coincidence — or, perhaps, he thought that the confused and turbulent nature of his feelings on the subject might be best translated musically into sets of fussy digital overdubs that produce a much more psyche­delic effect than anything where you actually have to play your instruments.

In any case, it does not really matter, because musically, this is still a quintessential Sufjan Stevens album: complex, creative, atmospheric, un-catchy, and modestly smooth to the point of becoming boring background muzak in about three minutes' time. The very first of those ultra­long electronic poems begins with the following verse: "If I was a different man, if I had the blood in my eyes, I could have read of your heart, I could have read of your mind" — convenient­ly leading me to suggest that, yes indeed, just a bit more blood in his eyes couldn't hurt. The pseudo-symphonic textures of ʽToo Muchʼ, rolling over like lukewarm multi-colored waves on some tourist alien beach, remind me a lot of The Animal Collective circa Merriweather Post Pavilion — except that The Animal Collective used to do this sharper, shriller, throwing them­selves into psychobattle with real abandon, something that Sufjan Stevens is incapable of offering because... well, because he is Sufjan Stevens.

I assume that the title track, based on the work of one of the weirdest sons of Louisiana, crazy artist Prophet Royal Robertson, should be perceived as the album's first truly focal point — it is loud, anthemic, it is essentially about a schizo-warped vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, but its note of triumph, vacillating between Sufjan's softly trickling "when it dies, it rots... and when it lives, it gives it all it gots..." and multi-tracked football-stadium whoah-whoah chanting, is wasted because the elements simply do not fit together. I can totally get behind something like Arcade Fire's ʽWake Upʼ, an anthem of the forces-of-light-attack-against-overhwelming-odds kind of nature; ʽAge Of Adzʼ, in comparison, is a happy sermon without any visible signs of struggle or, in fact, personality. The whole thing is about as involving as, indeed, could be a football fan chant (actually, correction: some football fan chants, particularly funny ones, can be pretty involving) — and no, it does not even have the kick-ass energy of a ʽWe Will Rock Youʼ (which is pretty much the latter's only, and insufficiently, redeeming quality).

Admittedly, Stevens is slightly overstepping his usual bounds here: on a lot of the tracks, he raises his voice, changing from the usual lulling soft whisper to a more lilting, attention-grabbing delivery — check out ʽNow That I'm Olderʼ, for instance, one of the first ever tracks in his reper­toire where he ditches the blend-in-the-walls ghostliness and takes a sharp step forward. Formally, it's a beautiful piece: proverbially gorgeous piano, proverbially gorgeous choral harmony over­dubs (for all of Sufjan's Christianity, choirs of pure-white angels do not make regular appearances on his songs, but he makes an exception here), proverbially enlightened lead vocals — and still, something is missing to make me properly tear up. Sincerity? Energy? Or is it simply a matter of not finding the right notes for the occasion? Perhaps some day we will figure this out better, but for now, I can only state with sadness that this new, improved version of Sufjan Stevens remains as much of a skilled craftsman — and little more than that — as it used to be.

Sufjan got some flak from critics for the last composition: ʽImpossible Soulʼ is merely another of those six-to-seven minute numbers that, for some reason, was stretched out to ultra-epic length (over 25 minutes) — essentially by taking the extended coda, slapping it in the middle, and then returning to the first part. It wouldn't be so bad, of course, if the choral part were awesome on its own, but it is not. Its main hook is the endlessly looped refrain of "boy we can do much more together, it's not so impossible", which is not only a fairly banal lyric for Sufjan Stevens, the Weaver of Words, but also sounds like one of those cheerleader things — intentionally, perhaps, but poorness of intention is no excuse. This is all the more sad because the quiet first part, shared by Sufjan with Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond), has a few delightful moments (the most delightful of those, the tender falsetto "don't be distracted" bit does sound 100% out of the Beach House songbook, though). But, of course, few tracks these days deserve to be 25 minutes long, and Sufjan Stevens tracks are hardly among the few that I could possibly recommend.

As before, I see no point in commenting on too many of the individual tracks — they all bring home pretty much the same kind of bacon. I neither approve nor disapprove of Sufjan's handling of the electronic equipment, either: his methods may be different, but he gets the exact same kind of results no matter what he does, be it weaving a complex net of chimes, flutes, and banjos, or laying down gurgling electronic samples like there was no tomorrow. Production values have actually gone up, I think — the music does not possess the same «dollhouse flavor» nearly as often as it used to; but memorable or truly deep-sounding themes are still a problem. All in all, life has certainly gained a number of new layers in its transition from the age of Aquarius to the age of Adz; problem is, there is no certainty that life actually needs those new layers, just as there is no certainty that the life and creativity of Prophet Royal Robertson carried any significant meaning for the world at large. At the very least, listening to The Age Of Adz has failed to convince me of that — though I can certainly see where Sufjan Stevens could see a kindred spirit in the likes of somebody like Robertson.


  1. Are you skipping the All Delighted People ep? It's an hour long so it pretty much counts as an album, and I'm honestly not sure why Sufjan relegated it to ep status. Regardless, it came out before this one as a clearinghouse for all his post-Illinoise, pre-Adz material and sort or bridges the two.

  2. Hi George, I'd just like to let you know that I think you are spot on in these reviews. If anything you are polite; this is prime crap. Pretentious self-important lyrics with no emotional power at all, samey repetitive music that fails because it is neither groovy nor catchy, ear candy sound etc. Given its self-importance I find it very offensive.