Sound of the Life of the Year
Sufjan Stevens and Ella Mine Sum Up 2020

Every year has a sound to me.

This might be one of the most difficult concepts I’ve ever tried to explain in this space. That might not even be the best way to describe it. I’m not talking about the physical sound, like how Phil Collins-style gated drums sound like 1981, or how Jerry Cantrell’s guitar sounds like 1993. I mean I can point to an album or two each year that, no matter what style of music they contain, sound like that year.

Marillion’s FEAR is a great example. There’s nothing about it stylistically that sounds even particularly modern – it’s an ambient prog-pop epic, the kind Marillion has been making for nearly 40 years. But it sounds like a storm rolling in, like the last clear moments before the skies open up and people drown. It sounds like a clarion call, like a warning from the mystics, like someone screaming at passersby in a train station, begging them to listen. In short, it sounds like 2016, and no other album really captures the year for me like that one does.

I don’t consciously look for the sound of the year. It just kind of presents itself, in one or two records that feel like they could not have been made at any other time. One of them this year is Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the bold and stunning fifth album by Fiona Apple. There’s a list at the end of this column, of the top 10 list as it stands right now, and Bolt Cutters promises to rank very highly on it. (I still have not finalized that list. At this point it’s as much a surprise to me as it is to you.)

Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension is another. 2020 has been an absolute horror show for me and everyone I know, with the twin stresses of a global pandemic and our precarious national situation bearing down on us. Many people, myself included, have lost friends and loved ones to COVID-19, and many of us have found unhealthy ways of coping through circumstances we could not have imagined. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg a few weeks ago set me on a path toward total hopelessness, and it’s a struggle every day to keep on going.

That is what The Ascension sounds like to me. I firmly believe that Sufjan Stevens is the best and most important musician of my generation. There is no one else my age who approaches his work with as much complexity, nuance and honesty as Stevens does. Every project of his is worth the patience, time and study it takes to understand, beyond just the initial awe. His last three major projects – 2005’s Illinois, 2010’s The Age of Adz and 2015’s Carrie and Lowell – have all topped my list in their respective years.

They also detail Stevens’ slow tumble into despair. Illinois was a sad and serious album in places, but it was practically bursting with hope. The sprightly orchestral arrangements alone conveyed a brighter outlook, even as he was singing about overcoming doubt and pain. The Age of Adz found Stevens immersing himself in electronics for the first time, combining them with his orchestral ambitions to create a whirlwind of sound. That whirlwind threatened to drown him, and the lyrics matched the turmoil. Here was a Sufjan Stevens struggling, trying to reconcile his belief in something greater with the horror of the world. And yet, he emerged from this one hopeful as well.

Carrie and Lowell, of course, is one of the saddest albums ever made, on which Stevens grapples with the loss of his mother and the erosion of his faith. And now, with The Ascension, he’s hit an empty, hollow place. This is a record with almost no light, one that grows more desolate as it goes along, and it ends in bitterness. It hurts to listen to, especially in all of its 80-minute glory. This is the sound of Stevens breaking himself open and finding nothing inside.

It’s also absolutely magnificent. Sonically this one retains the electronics of Adz but removes the organic elements – nearly the entire thing is rendered on synthesizers. In some ways it feels like Stevens has been making music like this for a while, but the complete absence of guitars, horns and other instruments makes a much bigger difference than you’d expect. Stevens often uses his synths to create bleak soundscapes, as layered and intricate as anything he’s given us, and the sounds he uses are evocative. Much of this feels like walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and you can feel the oppressive heat and see the endless miles of barren wasteland in your mind.

The first five of these songs feel almost introductory, like Stevens setting the stage. They are the most traditionally enjoyable as well, especially the slinky electro-pop of “Video Game,” in which Stevens refuses to play the standard publicity game, preferring his own company. It’s a moment of defiance and self-actualization before those qualities slip away later. “Tell Me You Love Me” is the first hint of difficult times ahead, as Stevens opens with “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything, tell me you love me anyway…”

Once you hit “Die Happy,” the record sinks into the depths, and it doesn’t come back up for more than half an hour. “Die Happy” is a slow, bleak ocean of sound, over which Stevens repeats “I want to die happy” as a mantra, the musical backdrop making that sound less and less likely as it goes. “Ativan” feels like anxiety, Stevens asking “Is it all for nothing, is it all part of the plan” over a flurry of electronic noise. “Landslide” is a masterpiece of darkness, the ascending melody caught in a rush of synths like rocks falling down upon it. “Death Star” is almost a dance song, but it feels like rowing the boat across the river Styx. It’s about the hopelessness of climate change, but it feels like hitting bottom.

And where the Stevens of old may have left us on a note of grace, here he refuses to. “Sugar” finds him crying out for human connection – it is the most desperate use of “don’t make me wait” you will ever hear. The title track is, bar none, one of Stevens’ very best songs, and finds him grappling with his own selfishness and complete lack of hope. The lyrics here are devastating: “And to everything there is no meaning, a season of pain and hopelessness, and I shouldn’t have looked for revelation, I should have resigned myself to this, I thought I could change the world around me, I thought I could change the world for best, I thought I was called in convocation, I thought I was sanctified and blessed…” In the context of his body of work, the final repeated “what now” here is unspeakably painful.

And then he leaves us with the 12-minute “America,” which feels like the final refutation of his wide-eyed 50 states project. It’s about losing faith in everything, from God to country, and finds him pleading to both God and man: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” The final washes of synth are like the last vestiges of light slipping from the day. And it hurts. But it sounds like 2020 to me, like a year in which joy has been hard to find, and despair has been creeping in around the edges. The Ascension is extraordinary, astonishing, beautiful in its pain. It’s also so bleak, so dark, so difficult that I don’t know how often I can listen to it. Like 2020, it’s not something I am excited to revisit.

But 2020 has also been about overcoming all that darkness, about facing the impossible head on and making your way through it. And that’s why it makes sense to me to point to another extraordinary album, one that also encapsulates the sound of this year to me. That album is a debut from a virtually unknown artist, and under other circumstances it may have slipped by me. But not this year. The artist is Ella Mine, and the album is called Dream War, and it’s a superb piece of work, one that gives me the resolve to face not only this year, but the future.

Ella Mine is only 23 years old, but she’s already been through hell. Dream War draws on her experience of taking prescribed drugs for physical pain that caused paranoia and psychosis, and she’s still recovering from the effects years later. In this revealing interview she talks about facing a choice every night: stay awake and allow her brain to attack her, or sleep and deal with horrific, lifelike dreams. This album is about clawing her way through that, and about achieving a peace that allows her to dream again, both literally and figuratively.

It’s as cohesive musically as it is conceptually. It’s built around her piano and her voice, and it plays like a single 62-minute whole. Taking it in sequence is like going on a journey with her, through the weariness of the title track to the tumult of “Water’s Rise” to the lovely revelations of “Fire” and the two reprises that tie this album up in a bow. The sound is layered and dark and beautiful, and everything segues, so it carries you from first note to last. It’s remarkably ambitious, but Mine and her collaborators are skilled enough to pull it off brilliantly.

And it is exactly the record I needed at this point in the year. Mine’s descriptions of her experiences sound horrific. “If I’m scared then I’m scared of what I might design,” she sings on the massive title track, and on the brief musical bridge that follows she wonders, “Will I ever get to sleep without a killing in my head?” “Water’s Rise” is one of my favorites, Mine repeating “Heart is wax against flame, bronze in fire, paint in rain” and admitting she is losing strength. Both “Where Is She Now” and “Sound and Fury” are based on Shakespeare, the former from the point of view of Lady Macbeth, here only killing in her dreams.

But going through all this to get to “Fire” feels like victory, no matter how small. “I’ll run again, I’ll run again, replace the fire,” she sings, finding the will to go on. “I can’t love in this world without a fight,” she concludes, “so I’ll fight.” Dream War doesn’t end in a perfectly happy place, but it does end in a hopeful one, with Mine singing that she will dream again, and in a year like this one, that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Dream War feels like emerging on the other side of a long and painful struggle with the will to carry on, and though I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about our collective experiences when she wrote it, it speaks to them. It’s beautiful, powerful stuff, and one of the year’s very best records.

Check out Ella Mine here. I hope there will be CDs of this record soon, because I want one.

* * * * *

OK, here is the Third Quarter Report, delayed one week because of the Jandekian saga. This is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now, and it’s a pretty good indicator of how it will look in December. The top spots are up for debate, of course – the two I mentioned in this column rank highly, and I need to understand whether that is just the shock of the new, or a true representation of their ranking in my mind. Anyway, here is what will be the final (sniff) Third Quarter Report.

10. Lo Tom, LP2.
9. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher.
8. Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.
7. Everything Everything, Re-Animator.
6. Hum, Inlet.
5. Weiwu, Are You Perfect Yet.
4. Darlingside, Fish Pond Fish.
3. Ella Mine, Dream War.
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
1. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension.

I know quite a few of these have not been reviewed yet in this space, and I hope to get there. But not this week.

OK, one last thing, just for fun.

#103. Amsterdam Saturday (2020).

A return to basics, this show was recorded about a month after the Grinnell performance, on November 10, 2007 at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. It features a reunion with OG Jandek trio drummer Alex Neilson, and new-to-Jandek bassist Phil Todd. The Rep is on electric guitar, harmonica and voice, and for the most part, this feels like an old-school trio outing. These six songs fly by in 50 minutes, and they’re mostly confident and enjoyable minutes.

The first track is the strangest: the 11-minute “The Sentence” is carried by bass and drums alone, the Rep sing-speaking atop the bedlam. Todd and Neilson aren’t interested in laying down a rhythm. They’re both all over the place, Todd trilling the higher strings while Neilson plays accents and fills without a beat. It works pretty well, and once the Rep starts playing on “Am I Dreaming,” Todd settles into a more fuzzed-out, proto-metal sound. The bass carries these tunes while the Rep improvises.

This can certainly sound disorganized, but there are moments here when the three musicians are clearly listening to one another and tailoring the noise. There are dramatic pauses, ebbs and flows in intensity, everything that signifies a successful Jandek rock combo. Neilson has, of course, been around the block with the Rep, and knows his style well, but Todd steps up as a strong addition. Amsterdam Saturday isn’t a standout Jandek live album, but it’s a pretty good one, showing there is still life in this trio format yet.

Thanks again to everyone who stuck with me through five weeks of Jandek. Hope I didn’t lose too many of you. Next week, some more music. I have a lot to catch up on.

See you in line Tuesday morning.