Thursday, September 30, 2010

Follow the flame or fall on the floor

The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens

It's time to review the new Jackson Pollock painting Sufjan Stevens album. I knew ahead of time that this new album, The Age of Adz, would be very different. News releases indicated a drastic shift, an electronic experiment, a bizarre transformation. "This is not the Sufjan Stevens music you fell in love with!" "If you want your Sufjan to all sound like Come on Feel the Illinoise, you're in for a shock."

And you know what? It's true: The Age of Adz is in fact a bizarre transformation and an electronic experiment. This is most decidedly not the Sufjan Stevens music I fell in love with.

But it is the same Sufjan Stevens I fell in love with. What I have loved about Sufjan has been the layers and the complexity and the beauty of the music of Illinois, and all of that still remains. And what I have loved about Sufjan has been the perfect sounds to match the perfect words in the music of Seven Swans, and all of that still remains. And after several listens--it took several listens--I can say that I love The Age of Adz. This is not Illinois or Seven Swans. But it is Sufjan Stevens, who epitomizes the term musical genius.

The album starts off deceptively simple, with a lovely, quiet song called "Futile Devices." Sufjan sings about love in a more straightforward way than we've seen before, and except for the echo and reverb in his voice, the electronic tinkering is kept to a minimum here. It's a beautiful song.

And when "Too Much" starts, I know I'm in for something very different. Synthesized blips, industrial sounds, strange rhythms. What's going on here? But Sufjan starts singing, and I soon see that his music has always had strange layers of sound--it's just that now the sounds are created differently. As on most songs I love from Illinois, "Too Much" has an unconventional structure, it has lush background voices, it has repeated movements, it has odd but gorgeous horns. This is weird and different, but I should not be so surprised by it. So I'm not, and I go with it.

"The Age of Adz" begins with a very dark, menacing, evil supervillain-type sound, and then Sufjan sings in his most fragile voice about eternal living, while odd bass lines and weird tubas thump in the background. The voices in this song are altered and echoed and strange, but again, I am drawn in. This is intriguing stuff.

My initial favorite song on the album is "I Walked." This song was released on the internet a few weeks ago, so I have had a bit more time with it, and I really love it. The subtle electronic beats that comprise most of the music add a minimalism that helps to highlight Sufjan's straightforward lyrics. Of course I love Illinois, but I find something comforting here about not needing an encyclopedia and atlas to know what a song is about. And he really covers the entire range of his vocals here.

"Now That I'm Older" starts like church hymn, and then becomes an experiment in voice looping. Odd, drumless, haunting.

Another drastic change arrives with "Get Real Get Right," as Sufjan continues his long history of religious language, but this time set to a prominent electronic bass drum, synthesized strings, and sliding trombones. But again, look past the electronics and computer voices and you'll find a pretty Sufjan-like song. And as on some of the other songs on the album, his singing voice here is a bit more "regular," less precious, less perfect, more tortured. It works.

"Bad Communication" is a love song made by 1950s movie aliens.

To underscore the overtly personal nature of "Vesuvius," Sufjan sings to himself:
Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame
Or fall on the floor
Sufjan, the panic inside
The murdering ghost
That you cannot ignore
And then he adds electronically altered pan flutes and Irish whistles. Listening to this on headphones, I hear new noises every time I play it. That's a good thing.

I love the way "All for Myself"starts, with the sound of a record skipping and Siren-like "oohs." Woodwinds join in, and Sufjan's voice is back to what we all recognize, but the layers of sound rise up like a wave and carry me to the end.

Another favorite on the album is "I Want to Be Well," but I cannot decide if I love it for the sounds or because I just like hearing Sufjan say fuckin' a lot. I think a little of both. The background singers add that familiar Illinois sound, but the upbeat drums and keyboards remind us where we are. And in one of his typical song break structures, Sufjan says to us, "I'm not fuckin' around." Indeed.

. . . which leads us to "Impossible Soul." Did you hear that Sufjan has a 25 minute epic of strangeness on his new album? He does. 25 minutes. It's called "Impossible Soul." It has harps, electric guitars, Star Wars laser noises, Shara Worden (from My Brightest Diamond and The Hazards of Love), Sufjan on autotune (yep, he goes all T-Pain on us), about nine tempo changes, soaring horns, and a banjo. I listened to this cacophony on the train today and was completely swept away in its weirdness and its beauty.

And that pretty much sums up the album. The Age of Adz will polarize people. "I want my 'Chicago' back!" some will say. "Sufjan, where's the next 'Casimir Pulaski Day'?" My response: "Chicago" is on your iTunes; look for it there. You already have "Casimir Pulaski Day," so why do you need another one?

Sufjan Stevens has created an experiment. But that is what all of his albums have been, and like the predecessors, The Age of Adz is brilliant.


At 10:32 PM, Blogger Michael Day posited...

Thanks John! I've only listened once so far, but I too was intrigued, and will keep listening to this rich, incredibly layered album.

Hope to see you one of these days!


At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous posited...

Good review.

I completely agree!

He is a genius!

I was only a casual SS observer before, but holy shit, this floored me.

No question, album or the year, perhaps of the decade!

And it definitely takes a few listens to really hit you. But when it does, it does so on so many levels.

Very powerful work of art.

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Armenoush posited...

I completely agree with everything you said. Great review! "Walked" is my favorite too.


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