Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz (2010 LP)

Sufjan Stevens is a storyteller, a bard singing the myths and histories of his land. Much of Stevens’ previous work is usually described best as being born out of the American folk tradition, telling tales of experiences, towns and cities; real places and real people. The narrative of the America as Sufjan Stevens tells it is a land as equally full of graceful beauty as it is of magnificent turmoil. With his newest full length album, The Age of Adz, Stevens seems to take a more introspective position in his lyrics. Still, there is a strong sense throughout the album that we are being taken somewhere, hitching a ride across an unknown and very strange countryside. Having recently toured with a band, complete with strings, horns, dancers and a magnificent visual production, Stevens seems interested in making more than just music; he is making art.

From the very onset of Stevens career, he has alway demonstrated two very different sounds: the electronic and the folk. The two earliest albums, the instrumental, electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit, and the mostly acoustic A Sun Came were released within only a year of each other, and yet they are poles apart. The Age of Adz is changeable and erratic, with these two styles of music combining in a way that seems, for the first time, to typify what Sufjan Steven’s is all about.

Stevens was apparently heavily influenced during the making this new album by the late and little-know American artist Royal Robertson. Robertson was a self-proclaimed prophet and artist, obsessed with outer space, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Stevens seems to have taken inspiration for not only the artwork, but the soul of the The Age of Adz from Robertson’s work.

The Age of Adz begins as you would expect a Sufjan Stevens album to begin, with a gentle and drowsy lullaby in the track “Futile Devices”. The first track is a false start, an overture. With the next track “Too Much”, the mood shifts. I found myself instantly replaying this track about five times, at increasing volume, enchanted by the shrill flutes and electro beat.

There are moments of enraptured dance music, and others of Stevens staple coral-backed, etherial numbers. The common thread through the whole album is this otherworldly (perhaps extraterrestrial rather than heavenly) journey through fire and passion, and towards knowledge and self discovery. There has always been an essentially ambiguous nature to Stevens lyrics, however this isn’t so much the case with The Age of Adz. The album feels like a journey across Sufjan Stevens personal landscape. If this is the case, then his landscape seems to somewhat resemble Mars. There is a definite cosmic grandeur to the sound.

It is hard to really point out the standout tracks on an album such as this. As a whole, everything fits together and each songs feels like a piece of a puzzle. “Get Real Get Right” is a dancey number that incorporates the orchestral sound that is reminiscent of some of the tracks from 2005’s Come On Feel The Illinois. Extravagantly theatrical waves of violin and trumpet would do well as a soundtrack to those Marvin the Martian episodes of Bugs Bunny cartoons.

With “All For Myself” there is a folk refrain, in the form of a cacophony of voices, percussion and flutes. The beautifully ominous ‘Vesuvius’ is perhaps the most clearly self-referential track, or perhaps it can only be assumed so due to the fact that the lyrics are “Sufjan, follow your heart.”

“Impossible Soul” rounds off the album, with what seems like the inner argument of the narrator that almost encapsulates the theme of the entire album, as a grand finale. And grand this track is, played out through a Hollywood-epic arrangement of strings, wind instruments, and a choir of voices layered over that cosmic-sounding synthesized beat. There are about five movements to this song, it’s almost something like an opera. Stevens employes a vocoder at one point, and there is nearly ten minutes of happy dance-time music, where it is impossible not to be optimistic. Then the infectious joy just evaporates; the previous moment is farewelled with a fadeout of stripped back, pained and simple acoustic guitar.

The landscape created in the The Age of Adz exists about halfway between the heavens and the molten core of the earth. Stevens has cast his gaze out into the universe, but also inward. There are questions asked and answered in this album, perhaps the same questions everyone ask themselves at thirty-something. It is an argument played out, it seems, by just about every instrument or noise that was at hand and works so exquisitely that perhaps Sufjan Stevens inner turmoil has actually created the perfect environment for his music.

Review Score: 9/10


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