So I was having a discussion with Jeremy Keen about music.
We do this a lot. I’ve still never met Jeremy, but our semi-regular Facebook chats usually revolve around music – he writes and plays it, I review it, so we have similar interests, but very different perspectives. Anyway, Jeremy asked me to come up with some artists from the past decade or so who will be remembered as important, as musicians who exhibited not just brilliance and craftsmanship, but real staying power and influence.
I’m not sure if I said Sufjan Stevens, but if not, I should have.
In fact, I’m coming to think of Stevens as the most important artist of the past 10 years, even if he may not be universally hailed as such. Stevens seemed to come out of nowhere in 2005 with Illinois, an album I named the best of that year, and of the decade. But those who were paying better attention (a list which, sadly, does not include this reviewer) knew that Sufjan’s body of work to that point was diverse, challenging and brilliant. From the electronic frippery of Enjoy Your Rabbit to the sparse acoustics of Seven Swans to the template-setting modern folk masterwork Michigan, the road to Illinois was paved with smaller, yet still dazzling works.
But Illinois stands apart. I’ve been collecting music since I was 14 years old, and I own very few albums that can match it for scope, craft and sheer magic. It’s 74 minutes long, contains 22 tracks, and never puts a foot wrong. More than that, it uses its fascinating conceit – it was announced as part of the now-aborted 50 States Project, and uses landmarks and historical events as touchstones – to delve deep and tell intensely personal stories. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” is about the state’s most famous serial killer, but it is also about the secrets we keep, and the reasons we hide them. Illinois is about Stevens’ own redemption as often as it’s about Casimir Pulaski, or Mary Todd Lincoln.
I have listened to Illinois front to back more times than I can count. I have bought it for several people, and copied it for several others, and generally pushed it like a dealer giving samples of his best stuff. It is my go-to example when people claim that no one makes ambitious, perfectly-realized albums anymore. It is the kind of album that makes people quit music, certain they’re never going to hear anything better.
And for a while, it looked like Sufjan himself might have done the same. Before this year, his post-Illinois output consisted of an outtakes collection, a boxed set of Christmas music, and an orchestral piece about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The man also started giving interviews in which he sounded bewildered and defeated, like he simply couldn’t fashion his thoughts into music anymore. He’d given up on the album as an art form, he said. His orchestral work messed him up, and now he can’t find his way back to the song, he said.
A month ago, he finally returned from exile, giving us the marvelous hour-long EP All Delighted People. It sounded like Sufjan, but headed in new directions at the same time. It contained a 17-minute jam session with a lengthy, flailing, fractured guitar solo. It sported two versions of the title song, one of which seemed to slam together every bizarre bit of orchestration that swam through Stevens’ mind. But still, it sounded like our boy. And when he announced that All Delighted People was merely the table setting for the real follow-up to Illinois, well, let’s just say I haven’t been able to get this grin off my face for about a month now.
And now that I’ve heard that follow-up? Not just once, but seven times?
Okay, let me start with this. Nothing you have heard from Sufjan Stevens will prepare you for The Age of Adz. (Pronounced “odds,” apparently.) Musically, lyrically, emotionally, it’s like nothing he’s done before. Sonically, it’s closest to “You Are the Blood,” his 10-minute track from the Dark Was the Night compilation a few years ago. But it’s way, way beyond that. For the second time in his career, Sufjan has given me an album unlike any other I own. It’s intense, it’s over the top, it’s beyond ambitious, and what initially sounds like an explosion of noise coalesces over time into, ironically, the most naked and personal work of the man’s career. It is either the album of the year, or 2010’s most phenomenal flameout, and I’m not sure which.
So let’s start at the beginning.
The Age of Adz has no real conceptual underpinning, save Sufjan himself, but it’s based on the artwork of Royal Robertson. A native of Louisiana, Robertson suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and started drawing and painting after his wife left him for another man. He referred to himself as a prophet, and filled his work with allusions to the apocalypse and numerology. The work itself is cartoony and rooted in science fiction, but contains little screeds against his ex-wife, whom he names. It’s fascinating, even if it clearly is the product of a disturbed mind.
Stevens draws on Robertson as a metaphor for his own mind-state throughout this record. Put simply, The Age of Adz finds our sometimes twee storyteller going off the cliff, singing from the heart about his own despair and inability to cope with the world. The lyrics are, on the whole, straightforward, and full of declarations of love and pain. This is exactly the kind of lyric book Stevens might have set to sparse acoustic guitars and strings, for maximum impact. Instead, he went the other direction entirely.
Virtually every track on The Age of Adz is stuffed full of sound. And not just sound, but chaotic, layered, massed sound. It’s so big, has so much going on, that you’ll need to listen four or five times to catch everything. In some cases, you’ll need to hear songs multiple times before the melodies jump out. (And there are melodies, and they are gorgeous.) With the exception of the fragile acoustic fake-out opener “Futile Devices,” every song here is awash in electronic beats and noise, atop which Stevens stacks strings, horns, choirs, piccolos, and whatever else he feels like throwing in.
The effect is of a man desperately trying to keep control of the mess he’s created. I think he does, but only just. This is the first album since Bjork’s Homogenic to pick up the technorchestral baton and run with it, but this goes so far beyond what Bjork tried. These are symphonies more often than they are songs. In context, “Too Much” serves as your introduction to this sound, beginning with three minutes of crunching-through-ice drums and synth blips, but building and building in dramatic grandeur. By the end of its 6:43, it sounds like an orchestra trying to keep its bearings in a whirlwind. It’s unbelievable.
The title track is even bigger. It initially sounds like robots marching on Mordor, like music for the oddest techno-fantasy movie you’ve ever seen. Strings flail, horns blat, armies of vocalists sing (“Whoa-oh-oh-oh…”), everything is more massive than everything else. Until it isn’t. Proving he has control over this melee, Stevens drops out everything but his voice and guitar at key moments, and even ends the song that way. “Now my intentions were good intentions, I could have loved you, I could have changed you, I wouldn’t be so, I wouldn’t feel so consumed by selfish thoughts,” he sings, over what is, in contrast, no musical backdrop. The Age of Adz is full of these moments, but it takes a few listens to really hear them.
Trip-hop beats announce the arrival of “I Walked,” perhaps the closest to a pop single Stevens has given us here. A crawling breakup song, this one remains entirely electronic, the first one to do so. Stevens counters this with “Now That I’m Older,” a song built on nothing but massed choral vocals. It’s unearthly and haunting, and when Stevens steps in with that once-fragile, now supple voice, it’s astonishing. It’s like a low-moaning hymn. “I wanted so much to be at rest, now that I’m older, so be it…” The chilling piano plinks out a melody as the voices, those trapped and anguished voices, keep on wailing.
I could talk about every one of these songs, because they’re all integral to this record. The way Stevens reconciles his misery with his faith on the bouncy “Get Real Get Right,” the way he name-checks himself in the remarkable “Vesuvius,” the way he lays down a Wu-Tang-style backdrop, then turns it into a heart-rending lament on “All For Myself.” Everything fits, everything works, even when it doesn’t. The chaos is deliberate, the sense that we’ve gone off a cliff every few seconds is all part of the design. Had the album ended at track nine, it would have been a curious, yet mostly successful experiment.
Track 10 is called “I Want to Be Well,” and if you thought the earlier songs were a tornado of sound, wait until you hear this. It jumps time signatures, marries kinetic beats with piccolo runs and two hundred voices crying out. When everything backs away, leaving Sufjan muttering the title phrase over his guitar like a mantra, it’s frankly shocking. When he switches to a new mantra, “I’m not fucking around,” it’s jaw-dropping. Not just because this is Sufjan Stevens, who has always been a timid and faithful personality, swearing his head off, but because the song reaches levels of anger and intensity and turmoil unheard of in his catalog. This one is inspired, and I’m not sure I want to know what inspired it.
But even that won’t get you ready for the closing song, “Impossible Soul.” This thing is 25 minutes long, and I think I expected a repetitive jam-fest like “Djohariah,” which closed out All Delighted People. I was dead wrong. “Impossible Soul” is a multi-part epic suite, and it’s either Sufjan’s masterpiece or his greatest and most interesting failure. It begins like a pop song, with an almost Beatlesque rhythm and a fine melody, but before long, we’re in much more interesting (and much weirder) territory. And we never come back.
“Impossible Soul” is designed like a journey, following our singer through determination, despair and euphoria. The second section finds strings laying down a foundation while backing vocalists chant “No, I don’t want to be afraid” and Sufjan’s glorious choirs urge him not to be distracted. This is followed by a musical sinkhole, and a season in hell, trumpets mournfully calling out through the blackness. We’ve been through three songs’ worth of crazy, and we’re only at the 10-minute mark.
And then comes the auto-tune. Seriously. It’s like T-Pain in hell, Sufjan flagellating himself lyrically for about three minutes through a vocoder. And you know what? It really, really works. It’s unlike any use of the technique I’ve heard, and the blipping synths and massed backing vocals help things along nicely. But if you told me four years ago I’d one day be listening to Sufjan Stevens using Auto-Tune, I’d have laughed and laughed.
That’s not even the weirdest part of “Impossible Soul.” From here, it turns into a Prince track recorded on Mars. As the electronic beats pound out a dance rhythm, the army of vocalists starts chanting the song’s mantras: “It’s a long life, better pinch yourself, get your face together, better stand up straight…” The strings come in, the horns flail away, the electronic noise leaks in from the sides, and when the choir reaches the hook line (“It’s not so impossible”), it’s like a positivity party. The synths here remind me of “The Final Countdown,” but otherwise, this is like nothing else I know.
And it stays that way, an off-kilter, sunny booty-shaker, until about the 22-minute mark. There’s more vocoder, there’s a whispered “Do you wanna dance,” and there’s an overall sense of triumph, one that feels earned after an album of isolation and pain. The only problem with this section is you’ll be done with it before Sufjan is. He ends “Impossible Soul” with a fluttery acoustic guitar coda – you’ll think it’s a bonus track, until he starts singing the lyrics you’ve just heard in earlier sections. The coda is about how men and women don’t connect (“Boy, we can do much more together,” “Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure”) and ends by remarking at the mess they’ve made.
It’s a strange conclusion, to be sure, but thematically, I think it’s Sufjan finally climbing out of his romantic despair and surveying the damage. It counterpoints “Futile Devices” nicely, and after nearly 75 minutes of electronic madness, The Age of Adz ends with old-school Sufjan, acoustic guitars and vocals. Like he’s a whole person again, the one we remember. “Impossible Soul” is every idea Stevens has ever had ramming up against each other, the clearest example here of the artist trying to ride out his ambition and still remain in control. I’m still not sure if it all works, but it’s the year’s most original piece of work by a country mile.
I’m still processing The Age of Adz. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. Here’s what I can tell you now. As a follow-up to Illinois, this album is maddening and magnificent. It is deliberately messier, deliberately more difficult, and yet, when it all clicks, it’s unlike any musical experience I have ever had. Stevens is working on a level none of his peers can match, or would try to match. In every way, this is the year’s most ambitious and astonishing album.
But is it the best? I don’t know yet. I’m working on it. The Age of Adz takes some figuring out. In many ways, the record does everything it can to keep you at arm’s length, while baring its soul. It’s a fascinating contradiction, but one that’s going to take some time to work through. That by itself is a remarkable thing – I haven’t needed more than one or two listens to fully absorb an album in years, and even Illinois was an immediate thing with me. This one? Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I merely admire it. Sometimes it makes me dizzy. In some ways, it would be wonderful to have such different reactions to it each time I hear it, for the rest of my life.
The Age of Adz is so unlike Illinois that it could be the work of a different artist entirely. But at its core, it could really only be Sufjan Stevens behind it. I can think of no other contemporary artist with the imagination to dream up this record, the skill to realize it, and the courage to release it. I stand by my earlier statement: he’s the most important artist of the past 10 years, if not more. The Age of Adz is a work of insane, fucked-up genius, and whatever I end up thinking about it, I’m stunned and amazed and oh so glad that it and its author both exist.
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Wow, haven’t done a single in-depth review column in a while. Next week, a look at the newly-remastered John Lennon catalog. John would have been 70 this week, and even though I was only six when he was shot, I miss him. We’ll talk about how much next week. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.