Sufjan Stevens: Love and Madness in Space?

Sufjan StevensThe Age Of Adz (2010, Asthmatic Kitty)

“Boy, we made such a mess together”

Matt has pleaded and begged for me to write a review for his awesome website, and I’ve always promised him I would. I was simply waiting for the right album to come along (actually I’m just lazy, and not procrastinating-lazy, but lazy-lazy), and surprisingly, for me anyway, that album is by Sufjan Stevens. An artist I am familiar with but in a “yeah I like him, but lets not go bananas” kind of way. And as I’m sure you are aware, there are many people who go fucking bananas for the Superman of Folk.

The opening track starts simply enough. Sweet, caring, here’s-my-heart-on-my-sleeve-while-I-gently-pluck-some-strings. It’s obviously meant to call back to his more favored styling. To be fair, it is a good song and nicely introduces the theme found throughout the album, that of expressing, or not expressing, love, and all the heartache that accompanies these actions. But where that song ends, a whole other world begins in the next, giving way to “Too Much,” where the record is scratch and the glitch-bomb is dropped. How you receive the album may hang a lot on this song since it’s the first one to introduce the noise bomb Stevens lays down. If it left you a little cold and unsure in your world where God is Good, Sky is Blue, and Sufjan Stevens is a Folk Master Genius, don’t despair! There is beauty amongst the chaos in this crazy, mixed up album, and it deserves a listen with an open mind.

It’s not until the titled track that we get to really sink our teeth into some bloody meat. “The Age of Adz” begins like an atomic bomb going off. Like the wild-eyed crescendo of a mad man’s epic space fantasy musical, or perhaps the soundtrack to someone losing his mind; consumed by love and doubt. And it is loud. Angels trumpeting the coming of the apocalypse loud. The inspiration behind all this end of the world turmoil is due to one Royal Robertson, the album cover artist. Robertson was a schizophrenic born in Louisiana who had wildly vivid dreams of outer space, aliens, and God, usually in a combination of all three. He saw hallucinations and professed himself a Prophet. He was also a raging misogynist, with the divorce from his wife being the main inspiration for much of his art and sermons. This is curious because we see many mentions throughout the album of love either through the point of view of Stevens, Robertson, or both. It’s hard to say how much Stevens is channeling Robertson in these songs, or if he is channeling him at all. When he was young, Robertson had “a futuristic vision of a space ship with God as driver,” which perfectly sums up where “Get Real Get Right” is coming from, as it is the song most inspired by Robertson’s special brand of insanity. An album highlight, Stevens is on top of his form here. The track showcases his best work at infusing his electronic manipulations into a damn catchy song that begins with a feisty, space age retro feel but swells to a head rush of finale.

By this point into the album there is no mistaking the direction Sufjan is taking. Soft acoustics and plucky banjos of yesteryear give way to multi-layered and high soaring electronic soundscapes, but unlike his 2001 release, Enjoy Your Rabbit, the tinning drum beats and synthesized noises are intertwined with melody and strong vocals. No track displays that better than “I Walked.” Vocally it is similar to his more acoustic work, but it is encased in a heady drum beat and features shimmering effects that works well with the melancholy, lovelorn lyrics. And that is one of the greatest strengths of this album as a whole. All the so called electronic noises and bleeps work with the music. It’s not used for the sake of it; there is craft behind this tinkering. Listen to “All for Myself,” where the repetitive use of the scratched record effect lends the song to the feel of a long lost track on a once loved, warped record. Or the strange bubbling sound featured in “Vesuvius” that would be just at home in a 80s Atari game as it does on this beautiful, introspective song.

Stevens has basically made a name for himself from his Illinois and Michigan albums. That is all fine and good, as there is always a time and place for his previous, quieter works. Some would even argue that “Vesuvius,” one of the quieter “Sufjan-like” songs, is the album’s best track, but hearing him lose the proverbial fucking shit in “I Want to Be Well” was the high moment for me. Where has this Sufjan been all this time? That freak out sounded like the equivalent of bashing the hell out of that rubber foam bat in the office of the psychiatrist your parents made you visit after they got that divorce. Though, it is not without its controversy. Shortly after this album came out there was the gasp heard round the indie water-coolers at the audacity of an adult musician using the F word in one of his songs. Hold on to your bonnet, Sally! It’s hard to imagine anyone would care after the first listen. If you can get past the shock, you will hear a man losing himself into singing in a way he never really has before.

Love and death. A Prophet and his space piloting Jesus. F-bombs and freak outs. There is a lot to love about The Age of Adz. And yet Stevens made sure to leave the best for last. Ending track “Impossible Soul” is an ambitious 25 minute, but feels like half that length, journey into the heart of all this madness. The song can be split into at least four thematic parts, all vaguely connected to one another. Sure some of those themes may seem at odd with one another, but in a way that’s impossible to explain it remains cohesive, and assembled with elegance. Is it a space soaring ode to a schizophrenic? A feel good mantra for coming together and living life? A self-reflective love letter to an old lover? I’ll leave you to ponder that while I’m bouncing my head to the chorus half way through the song. Eventually, you will be too.

“It’s a long life, better pinch yourself!”

Underneath (and over and side ways) the space themed glitches and swirling orchestras are the gloriously repetitive choruses and catchy melodies that are the solidly Sufjan Stevens trademarks we have all grown to know and love. Some may see this album as a departure from his usual fare, but honestly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He always had it in him to produce something like this. It’s a mad whirlwind of all his electronic experimentation and genius melody craftsmanship seen in his previous works. A Stevens pot luck that can proudly stand on its own two feet as a wholly realized work of art. Above all The Age of Adz is filled with passion. Stevens cuts loose vocally and sings with a fire in his belly that is most refreshing. He said in interviews previous to releasing this album and his sister EP All Delighted People that he had lost his faith in creating music. Well then, hallelujah, it sounds like he has decidedly found it with this release.

Lastly, as an aside, I don’t really agree with reviews calling this album “weird” but I know I am in the minority here. Whether you consider this “weird” music will depend on what you’ve been exposed to and can tolerate. One person’s weirdness is another person’s music comfort food. I’m sure there are people who consider My Bloody Valentine weird or not listenable, but to me they are the purest form of bliss suitable only for jukeboxes in heaven. So from my point of view, this is not weird, not even close to weird. It’s pretty close to perfect, however.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, The Super Mega BTID Hype-o-tronic Capacitor

2 Responses to Sufjan Stevens: Love and Madness in Space?

  1. Jordan

    Thank you for writing the best Age of Adz review that I’ve seen yet. You aren’t just someone who only listened to Illinoise before writing your article and then complained about how there isn’t enough acoustic folk stuff like so many of the other reviews I have read. Thank you for actually understanding this album as a piece of art and experiment.

  2. elodie

    Thank you for the kind words, I had fun writing it up. I’mma try to do some more in the future!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *