Credit: Denny Renshaw
Sufjan Stevens has never been a man to shy away from concepts. He’s famously penned albums based on individual United States. He crafted a little something around the Chinese Zodiac and put out a box of Christmas songs. His last major project, “The BQE,” was about the object-song of New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, projected on screen as well as on record.
There are fans frustrated by the singer-songwriter’s schemes because, in a way, it makes his albums seem like a drill, never the “real thing” –like sonic exercises. “The Age of Adz” denies a concept outright but will be, beyond that, a major challenge for these fans, musically.
But I think that if Sufjan Stevens didn’t make albums like “The Age of Adz,” he’d be really bored. That’s not a bid in favor of the set, mind you, but gives some context to why there’s a lot going on here.
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More specifically, this is an electronic set, with 2001's “Enjoy Your Rabbit” as a predecessor: lots of loops, lots of repetition. It’s what Stevens calls “primal,” a constant, paranoid, machine-like pounding through his usual idiosyncrasies, from the guy-and-girl gang vocals, the flute-led orchestral ascents and descents, the breakdown into rounds. “Adz” is a sound tribute of sorts to outsider artist Royal Robertson, who suffered mental illness and crafted billboard-large images about the Apocalypse.
Stevens suffers the world’s -- and his own personal -- Apocalypse. He heralds the mighty “Vesuvias” – and we all know how that ends. He walks back to its base camp in the title track. He sets up a romance to have it torn down, starting with lilting opener “Futile Devices” and ending it partially in “All for Myself.” He foists advice upon himself in “Get Real Get Right” (“I should do myself a favor and get real / get right with the Lord”) but then does the same to “you” in standout “I Want to Be Well.”
That latter features a bric-a-brac of form and devices. The Devo-like beat march and a choral interstitial of churning angel voices go dark as he ponders “suffering” his demons. His girly voice shakily insists that he wants “to be well,” quickly followed by the lyric “I’m not f*cking around” – the kind of words uttered by a guy one step from the ledge or one twitch of the trigger finger. The electric drums maniacally clip over thick wah-wah-wah of tremolo and a barking choir. It’s unclear if he is the narrator or perhaps Robertson, but its loud and weird enough to make anyone feel a little unhinged.
There will be a lot made of the 25-minute space exploration “Impossible Soul,” like the soundtrack and score to a movie that’s never been made. Several times over, it takes what Stevens knows is a knock-down, drag-out, killer beast of a melody and then beats it to death, in different moods and flavors. His vocals are like eggs he’s willing to break for the sake of its whole, giving it an off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness and soul that his tracks about “Michigan’s” economic deterioration never had.
[CORRECTION] The Bandcamp version of the album release included a shorter version of “Too Much” as a bonus track, which in a way brings the mania full circle, and shares Stevens’ other visions of the track. musical ideas of the song (much like he did with “The Avalanche, the outtakes and alternative versions of songs from “Illinoise”). Killing off the set with “Impossible Soul” is the right move, though Stevens seems more interested in confronting and defying what constitutes an “album” or “song.” (Some of the same could be said of his EP “All Delighted People,” out in August
And with that, I think the simpler era in Stevens’ songwriting -- when it was his voice, with banjo, on some verses, a chorus – has expired. It doesn’t make him a hero or the villain, it's just a new "Age.”