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Album Review: Sufjan Stevens ‘The Age Of Adz’

I’ve put off reviewing this album for quite a while, because it is such a huge challenge to review your favourite singer/songwriter’s new work. Especially when it is an album like this. ‘The Age Of Adz’ is such a complete departure from Sufjan’s older full-length efforts that it seems rather foreign, however this doesn’t prevent it from being a sublime and masterfully layered record that offers more depth than pretty much anything else I have heard this year.

But of course, Sufjan’s departure from his old sound should come as no surprise. For a while it looked like he would never make another record, saying publicly that he had become disenchanted with the music scene and didn’t think there was anything to be gained by writing new songs. Sufjan fans were parched of releases for a while, however his track You Are The Blood on the compilation record ‘Dark Was The Night’ hinted at a new, glitchy electro direction for Sufjan.

This direction seemed to be confirmed with his recent EP ‘All Delighted People’, which came out of nowhere and struck a very nice balance between his perfect indie pop sound and his new leanings. If anything however, ‘The Age Of Adz’ has a tendency to lean much more towards his more electro side, which may disappoint some old Sufjan fans. However it is still simply great music, and Sufjan’s trademark touch is still evident in every song.

Interestingly, the opening song, Futile Devices, is one of the few tracks on the album that feels like it could have been written by Sufjan five years ago. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place on his magnum opus ‘Illinois’, and the fact that it is this song which is called ‘Futile Devices’ is perhaps sending a message that is uncharacteristically obvious.

Immediately after this track, the first single from the album, Too Much makes an appearance. This is one of those rare songs where I have covered the full spectrum of feelings towards it: at first I was indifferent, then I hated it, then, after many repeated listening, I slowly started to love it. Sufjan’s sharp insight is still evident in the lyrics, which begin with the haunting refrain of “If I was a different man…”. Even though not much else in this song is familiar from Sufjan’s older releases, somehow he still manages to lose none of his songwriting poise or tendency for choir-esque backing vocals. The way this combines with a decidedly electro undertone is truly something to behold, which indeed can be said for pretty much all of the record.

Sufjan has always had religious undertones to his music, but in this record they really do become more like overtones. But this is only one thread in the tapestry that is ‘The Age Of Adz’. Sufjan intertwines so many concepts, musings, musical elements, and themes that this becomes one of those rare albums where you never feel like you are quite grasping the whole thing in its entirety. Listening to ‘The Age Of Adz’, you feel like there is some poignant message constantly just out of reach, demanding further exploration of the record, but yet never fully revealing itself.

It’s part of the mystery of joy of the record, but it can also at times be frustrating. But then Sufjan has never been an easy book to read, always preferring cryptic messages over outright statements. In fact in I Want To Be Well, it comes as a serious shock to the system to hear Sufjan singing “I’m not fucking around!”, words seeming ill-fitting of a man capable of creating such beauty.

If I have one criticism of ‘The Age Of Adz’ it is that it fails to find a satisfactory balance between old Sufjan and new Sufjan. I thought that Sufjan’s ‘All Delighted People EP’ achieved this pretty well, with plenty of soft acoustic guitars to compliment the glitchy electro beats. However this full-length record really does lean towards the new, and it quickly becomes evident that, although Sufjan may be the unquestioned master of indie pop, he is still developing this more glitchy sound.

There are still elements of Sufjan’s uniqueness here of course, most notably in the form of his voice which is constantly sublime as ever, and only a fool would categorise this simply as an electronic album. But a more electronic sound is unmistakably where he is leaning.

The closer, Impossible Soul is a simply absurd song. At twenty-five minutes, you will think it has finished ten times before it actually does. Plus Sufjan’s voice with an auto-tune freaks the hell out of me. As an entire piece though, it is probably the most interesting on the album, which is really saying something, although it is impossible to escape the feeling that a song this long is a bit redundant. In some ways it may be Sufjan’s retaliation to the iTunes era of 3 minute pop songs and ADHD music fans.

It goes through many stages, but my favourite is the last three minutes which, oddly (considering that they are proceeded by the aforementioned auto-tune), probably hark back to old Sufjan stronger than anything else on the album. It may be intended as a bit of a treat for Sufjan diehards or he may genuinely think it fits the development of the song, but regardless Impossible Soul really is a fascinatingly disharmonious attempt at an epic.

Despite all the reasons why it shouldn’t work however, somehow it just does.

And in that way it is much like the rest of the album. On paper ‘The Age Of Adz’ sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. A musician who openly admitted that he had become disenchanted with music and that he wanted to leave his old sound behind is not exactly the recipe for a satisfying record, especially for the many ardent fans of said musician.

But, despite falling well short of Sufjan’s lofty indie pop standards (that is, of pure magic), ‘The Age Of Adz’ is a great record in its own right. It is certainly not magic (at least not consistently), but then it is not trying to be either. I do wish that Sufjan would make music like he used to, but if ‘The Age Of Adz’ is where he is heading then, well, things could certainly be a lot worse.

There’s just so much in this record to digest- strands of thought and musical construction that disappear as soon as you notice them, choir harmonies that somehow do not seem out of place with an electronic beat as their backdrop, and fleeting moments of pure beauty that take your breath away and, in some ways, are only made more sublime by the fact that they are fleeting.

Too right he’s not fucking around.

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One Response to “Album Review: Sufjan Stevens ‘The Age Of Adz’”

  1. Well said! Thank you.

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