Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: The Age of Adz
In Brief: We all had ridiculous expectations after Illinois. Try to set those aside and approach Adz as an unknown entity. It’s still a bizarre experience, but you’ll be better for it.
I could never be a recording artist. Or at the very least, not a semi-popular one who made new recordings with any degree of regularity. Putting aside issues of talent that I don’t have anyway, I don’t think I’d have the patience for it. By the time an album’s worth of material is released to the public, the artist has usually labored over it in the studio for quite some time, not to mention the trial-and-error process of writing and composing that takes place before that. To really get this right requires a lot of repetition. Even if the stars align and you get all that you wanted in the first take, there’s the issue of touring, playing a lot of the same songs night after night. Songs that are radio hits or fan favorites begin to take on a life of their own – at some point, even if you’re sick of the songs, you’ll feel that pull from an audience who seems to never tire of hearing them. You have to really love the work you do, and love doing it over and over again. Because of this, I sometimes I wonder what would happen if an artist got bored with his work. I’m willing to bet that I would, if I had to walk in their shoes for even a few weeks.
I can’t really say whether Sufjan Stevens is an example of an artist who got bored with his own music. It seems incredible to even think that such a prolific artist, one best known for his baroque indie pop opuses dedicated to Midwestern states (and the more folksy, banjo-driven material written around the same time), but also one who has dabbled in electronic and orchestral music, would ever get sick of the indie music world’s seemingly immense appreciation of his Illinois album, among others. I’ve written many times about the speculation surrounding the follow-up album, what it would sound like, and when it would drop, so I won’t rehash that here other than to say that The Age of Adz is upon us, and its creation seems to indicate a sense of artistic restlessness, of possibly getting bored with the boundaries we all assumed he operated within. Had it not been for the blurb Sufjan released describing the album not long before its arrival, Adz would have been a shock to the system indeed. At first listen, the electronic gurgling and intentional dissonance of its songs might seem like an attempt at sabotage – a deliberate dismantling of all the characteristics that we knew and loved about Sufjan. Calling this a “love it or hate it” record is putting it mildly. And yet, there’s some amount of precedent for this. It seems that hardly anyone has listened to Enjoy Your Rabbit, Sufjan’s electronic song cycle about the Chinese zodiac, or at least in comparison to the hordes that descended upon Michigan and Illinois. But imagine full-fledged songs, with vocals and lyrics, being written around all the crackles and bleeps and bloops, and you’ll start to get an idea of what Sufjan is going for here.
However, that’s just the beginning. I really think it’s impossible to throw out all your trademarks and do something 100% out of left field, and try as Sufjan might to throw us off balance, he can’t hide his love of brash horns, trilling flutes, and other classical instruments as they rise out of the computerized din, creating an unholy alliance of new and old sounds that I’ve found are sometimes as thrilling as the similar experiment “Traffic Shock” on The BQE. Even the exotic Middle Eastern sounds of some of A Sun Came!‘s better tracks resurface here. Seemingly everything Sufjan has done before informs what he’s doing now. You won’t be ready for it, but if you’ve really sat down and listened to Sufjan’s discography, most of it will make some amount of sense.
And then there are the lyrics. Sufjan seems to swing on a pendulum that swoops back and forth between detached travelogues simply describing a place and its inhabitants, and intensely personal statements of belief, loss, betrayal, and other deep-seated emotions that you might not expect at first from his thin, schoolboy-ish voice. Adz probably trumps everything else he’s done in terms of surprising lyrical sentiments – at times he seems hell-bent on deconstructing the audience’s image of him. It’s an exciting ride, but sometimes a maddening one, as we find our restless protagonist mired in his share of existential quandaries, using profanity for the first time on one track, or even indulging in a lurking behemoth of a grand finale that could probably have been released as an EP unto itself. None of these things are deal-breakers, but just be aware that he’s determined to subvert the vast majority of your expectations. Those who embraced Sufjan for being an “organic artist” who avoided the laptop, or who brought him into the “Christian music” fold after the open statements of faith on Seven Swans which were subtly echoed on the two “state albums”, will probably feel compelled to rethink their categorization of this artist.
I seem to be in a small camp when it comes to this new album – I neither love it nor hate it. Maybe I’m just more dogged in my determination to listen and find the best traits of songs that I initially consider off-putting, and also to look deeper into the stuff I like right away and ask whether it really holds water. Whatever my deal is, I can say that I’ve come out liking this album, in between my bouts of frustration with it. Not everything works. Sometimes I want to tell Sufjan “OK, we get it, you figured out how to write a catchy song around a dissonant, squashed melody, cute trick, but let’s move on”. At other times I think he’s become so fascinated with the collage of sounds that he got distracted from the actual “song” altogether for several minutes at a time. But I can’t say that there’s more than one, maybe two duds out of this album’s eleven tracks. And if eleven seems short, keeping in that the 25-minute closing number could essentially be considered five separate songs that morph into one another over the backdrop of a mostly continuous rhythm. So this is really more like sixteen songs’ worth of new material. A few dudes are allowable. Since I know he’s capable of getting through that much material with no duds, of course, I can’t give Adz full marks. But the successes here more than make up for the flaws. You’ll probably have a considerably different opinion if you can’t tolerate heavy use of electronics in the music that you listen to, or if you find deviation from expected melodic patterns to be maddening. But those who listened to Illinois and thought, “Hey, I’d like something even more adventurous than this” may have found what they’re looking for. I don’t think riskier is always better when it comes to music, but the folks who do will probably eat this album up and beg for seconds.
1. Futile Devices
I’m convinced that this track opens the album for no other reason than to lull the listener into a false sense of security. With the gentle electric guitar picking and a little bit of piano lightly sprinkled in, it gives no warning as to the bombast that will soon follow. Opening with a ballad that runs two minutes and change actually isn’t a strange move for Sufjan at all, but there’s just that slight hint that something is amiss. Maybe it’s the strange, hushed echo of his voice – there’s some effect or filter making him sound slightly hazy, or maybe that’s just my imagination. And then there’s that one piano key that seems to be stuck, resulting in a dull “plink” where there should be a resounding note during the instrument’s melodic refrain. It seems like Sufjan’s usual homespun handiwork at first – a simple tale of brotherly love with the little details telling the true story. Yet he doubles back on himself, says his own analogies are dumb, and points to the futility of his own words as the song coldly ends. That’s when stuff starts to get weird.
2. Too Much
Just about the most off-putting thing you can do to a person who’s expecting an album of baroque, folksy goodness is start off a track with twenty seconds of purely atonal electronic gurgling. Back in the days of Enjoy Your Rabbit, Sufjan might have actually been content to let such noise be the backdrop of an entire track, but here, he wisely allows it to congeal into a stilted rhythm that, if you listen to it, begins to punch out one of Sufjan’s trademark odd time signatures, slowly but surely reminding us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As impossible as it may sound, this is actually one of the album’s catchiest tracks, owing in no small part to the simple chorus of “There’s too much riding on that/There’s too much, too much, too much, love”, punctuated by a few robotic handclaps just where they’re needed most. My earlier comparison to “Traffic Shock” comes in handy here, since this track takes its time to really get going, but when it does with the flutes a-buzzing and the horns a-blurting and the always excitable background singers layered one atop the other, it becomes a rather exciting joyride – a musical Frankenstein that can’t be stopped. Sufjan’s tone is actually somewhat apologetic, as if he’s aware of his own shortcomings as a lover (and it might even be code for the relationship between artist and fan, but I could just be reading that into the song because anyone and everyone who reviews this album will quote this song to refer to our expectations after Illinois). This thing runs for a good six and a half minutes, yet it never feels laborious or overly repetitive.
3. Age of Adz
The title track is a big, hulking beast of a song, crashing through the speakers with boisterous horns and cymbals, and taking us for an eight minute long, zig-zag ride between quieter, more “laptoppy” passages and loud, brash choruses. You can tell that the kernel of this one was a simple, acoustic melody, as evidenced by the relatively calm final verse – he could have played the entire thing that way if this were a different album, and we’d have been none the wiser. Instead, he chooses to change it up by purposefully stomping on that melody from time to time, letting the horns twist their notes and giving the track a slight hint of jazzy experimentalism. Jazz isn’t played by robots, of course, so it may be tough going for listeners who can’t reconcile the human elements with the programmed ones. I rather like the contrast. The song seems to herald an era in which the dead are reanimated, which only serves to increase the creepiness factor of the album’s cover image, while also reminding me how ticked off I am that they had to go and cancel Caprica. I was looking forward to seeing how the Artificial Intelligence-led apocalypse came about, and this song would have made one hell of a killer soundtrack.
4. I Walked
The beat’s slower and steadier here – the electronic sounds still thump and stutter about, but this is probably the most straightforward thing on the album, once you’ve grown accustomed to Sufjan’s new sound. As it ambles along with its comparatively easygoing melody, and the angelic female vocals swelling up in the background, it’s easy to take this one for more of a pedestrian track, as it does tend to repeat itself musically instead of turning the unexpected corners that the previous tracks did. Listen to the lyrics, and something more sinister begins to take shape, as a man seems to be calling out to his lover from beyond the grave, leaving behind reminders of himself. Maybe it’s not that drastic. Maybe he’s just “dead to her”, which is sort of how he phrases it at the beginning of the song, and he simply has a flair for the dramatic. Either way, it’s got that beautiful/creepy mixture that some of the best Sufjan songs do, even if you might not pick up on it at first. I’m still not sure that it needs to run for five minutes, but that’s small potatoes compared to some of the epic track lengths on this album.
5. Now that I’m Older
This track sounded like a big, long yawn to me at first – like the male vocal version of a Björk outtake circa Medúlla. With absolutely no rhythm to drive it, Sufjan’s voice gets blurred and swirled around as he sings this bizarre ballad, with little snippets of it seemingly chopped apart and used for background ambiance. Those who know my opinion of the aforementioned Björk album can probably guess how I initially felt about this – but I’ve gained respect for it upon realizing that there’s seemingly nothing here other than those vocal sounds. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a way that isn’t totally conspicuous. At times, I like the somber, hazy-memory-of-the-past sort of mood that this one creates; at others, it feels like an interruption to the more mechanical mood of the rest of the album. There may or may not be a love story here – it’s told from the perspective of a man recalling experiences from long ago, as if to say he was sure of his commitments and his reasons for making them then, but now, he’s lost track of that reasoning. It’s kind of a bummer, but it’s also ambiguous enough to warrant further dissection.
6. Get Real Get Right
Now that’s more like it. The computerized beats are back, a bit heavy on the bass this time, but still relaxed… at least at the beginning. This one slowly grows more intense and busy than The Avalanche‘s “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”, but at first it just seems like a chilled out, futuristic/streetwise sort of rhythm, so you just go with the flow. Listen closely to Sufjan and you’ll find that he’s actually in manic preacher mode here, urging a paranoid conspiracy theorist (that’s who I like to imagine he’s talking to anyway) to put away his rifles and speeches and hubris and “Get real, get right with the Lord.” It’s quite possibly more direct than some of the material on Seven Swans, yet somehow subverted – I doubt people will hear this one and go, “Oh, there he goes with that Christian music again”, because it’s just too bizarre to be that straightforward. Musically, where there seems to be another catchy melody at work here, the chorus is also bent at odd angles, repeating the same melody but making alarming key changes over and over again, the exuberant scouting troop of voices behind Sufjan continually rising and falling to match the odd flats and sharps. try to hum it to yourself while the music’s not playing – you’ll probably be way off. And Sufjan probably did that just to mess with you.
7. Bad Communication
If “Now that I’m Older” was the aural equivalent of a yawn when I first heard it, then this track is the aural equivalent of a fart. The synths sound like they’re doing about as much, blurting out what they hope will pass for a repeating motif that establishes the rhythm of the song. But this is one point where Sufjan’s attempts to subvert his usual rhythmic and melodic tricks go too far. The whole thing sounds painfully strained and off-key, making its mere two and a half minutes a real chore to get through. As far as the pecking order of tracks on this album go, this may as well be an interlude. Yet there are lyrics and a central idea that Sufjan seems to want us to pay attention to – basically the sour mood that comes from realizing a loved one isn’t listening to you or showing any sensitivity to your pain. Sufjan’s kind of jaded in general on this album. It’s fine on most of the songs because they seem to be doing something inventive with it, but here, my interest in his whining hits rock bottom.
We’ve got another odd mixture of old world and new world here, as more of those squished electronic sounds butt heads with instruments that feel like the stuff of fairy tales. Here’s where I get the flashbacks to A Sun Came! The “gypsy flutes”, or whatever you want to call the exotic woodwinds sprinkled all over this volcanic oddity, give it an otherworldly vibe. I used the word “volcanic” quite literally there, as Sufjan is addressing a volcano by name, asking it all manner of existential question, and the crazy part is that it responds to him by name. Is it considered breaking the fourth wall to address yourself in third person, by your first name, in a song. (He’s done it in a track title before, but never a lyric.) The implications are interesting, though: “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame, or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” Come to think of it, there sure are a lot of musings about death and murder – and even rebirth – on this album, and also the companion EP All Delighted People. Sufjan must be in a weird headspace these days. At this point I’m starting to get a little sick of the intentionally dissonant singing, and I just want the background singers to knock it off a bit, since I think this song would be more beautiful with less of the layered elements present. it’s not often that I say that about a Sufjan Stevens song.
9. All for Myself
Another shorter piece shows up here, almost threatening to get lost in between the more memorable songs that surround it. It’s another one that I have a love/hate relationship with, as its energy comes bubbling to the surface in fits and starts, timed with the quivering flutes and little synthesized geysers that sort of establish a rhythm as they spurt up out of the ground. Lyrics are about as bizarre as Sufjan’s ever written them – try these on for size: “Impatience and a painted bust”, “We set out once with folded shirts, with hariy chest and well rehearsed”, “Impressions of the unmade bed, you cradled close to me, close to my ear”. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was a bit of Ho Yay going on here, but Sufjan’s known for playing characters in his songs, and I don’t want to start the same kind of rumors that “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” got started.
10. I Want to Be Well
Despite all the weirdness that has come before, this’ll be the track that probably makes the most people turn up their noses at Sufjan’s new direction. That’s not so much because of the music – which is as fast-paced and off-kilter as “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” was, only more computerized. But the lyrics are among some of Sufjan’s most vicious and harrowing, as he seems to describe a sickness, a perception of a relationship that has gone so bad, it’s either kill or be killed. (One wonders what exploring the psyche of a serial killer like John Wayne Gacy, Jr. all those years ago might have done to the poor guy.) The interplay between Sufjan, the backing vocalists, and the furious rhythm is genius, but as the struggle comes to a head and he repeatedly snarls, “I’m not f*cking around!” Some wouldn’t make such a big deal over one word (though it is repeated several times in what I must admit is an epic climax), but for me it’s more that this song represents the crossing of a line that wasn’t previously crossed. When someone like Green Day is all “F this” and “F that” in a song, it might not be my favorite song of theirs, but it’s par for the course and it doesn’t really deserve special attention. But when someone like Sufjan, previously known for more of an earnest personality and verbose lyrical style, drops the F-bomb, you sit up and pay attention. At times I think, it could have been expressed with more literate language. At other times, I think sometimes that’s the truest, most passionate response to realizing you’re that sick in the head and you want to get better. So I can appreciate where he’s coming from even though I won’t be playing this track with my wife in the car. (Which is a shame, because she tends to like his stuff, but she thinks I’ve got enough of a potty-mouth as it is, I don’t want poor old Sufjan getting blamed for contributing to it.)
11. Impossible Soul
Oh for crying out loud, THIS SONG. It’s nearly half an hour long, and to sum it up in one paragraph would result in the most impenetrable block of text I’ve ever written. So just for fun, I’m going to name the different segments of the song as I try to break this one down into more manageable chunks.
i. Impossible Woman
The repetitive hum of the synth tone establishes a slow, steady rhythm – you’re right to wonder whether you can handle 25 minutes of this, but you’d be surprised what he can do with it. This first part would actually work reasonably well as a song unto itself – it’s a plea to a woman who is being difficult, because he knows he’s just as difficult as she is and is pretty much the only one who can understand and love him. That’d be pretty basic, though somewhat unresolved, if he had closed with such a thought, so I’m actually glad that this is all about to mutate into something much bigger. The drums come crashing in and at one point, where the “bridge” of a normal-length song might be, there’s one of Sufjan’s patented guitar freakouts. This will probably scare you if you managed to survive the endurance test that was “Djohariah”, but relax, it goes somewhere completely different from there.
ii. Don’t Be Distracted… (Whoops, Too Late)
A female voice takes over momentarily, asking questions of Sufjan that cut to the core: “Do you want to be afraid?” “Do you want to be alone?” “Do you want to love me more?” These eventually get the response of a group of people excitedly shouting back, “No, I don’t want to feel pain!”, which is one of the album’s more memorable points for the audience to chime in, even if the surrounding context is a whole world away from the catchy pop song in which you might expect that sort of vocal interaction. This piece of the song seems to fizzle out as it goes, with the advice “Don’t be distracted” repeated, elongated, and eventually fading out into the ether as the song starts to do exactly what it tells us not to. This is the part that tries my patience the most – though listen to that reverberating echo. Sufjan still hasn’t lost the beat.
iii. Stupid Man, or, the Resurrection of Auto-Tune
I suppose it was inevitable. You can’t let an otherwise well-meaning artist play around with a laptop for an entire album without the urge to auto-tune himself eventually getting the better of him. Sufjan’s never needed assistance in the staying-on-key department (despite what the untrained ear might think during the intentionally off-key experiments elsewhere on this album), so this is purely done for a bit of sonic spice, creating a cold and detached, yet somewhat whimsical mood as Sufjan berates himself for not getting his act together and putting 100% into… whatever it is that he feels he failed at. This goes on for a few minutes before another bit of vocal interplay between Sufjan and the BGV’s gives way to something much more danceable.
iv. It’s a Sing-Along Life
Go, Sufjan! It’s your birthday! (I’m exaggerating about the birthday part, but the gang vocals are once again encouraging Sufjan by name. He’s so meta!) As a beat worthy of a good workout brings the song back to life, we get Sufjan’s approximation of a dance/funk party, which was exactly the sort of setting his army of excited backup singers was born to yelp along to. Catchy doesn’t even begin to describe it – it’s a joyous climax like no other in Sufjan’s entire discography, as everybody chants and sings – “Boy, we can do much more together! (Better get it right, get it right, get it right, get it right!)” The talkboxes come out to play and everybody’s having a total blast, putting us worlds away from the navel-gazing that preceded this section (I’m not knocking it, just noting that the mood has changed considerably). If it were possible to extract this one segment as its own song, it might eclipse “Too Much” as my favorite on the album, but I’m not sure it would be as exhilirating if taken out of context. As the mantra “It’s not so impossible” repeats, the beat and the vocals begin to get warped into oblivion, during a very long breakdown that eventually fades it all away until what’s left is a single, solitary hum. The song flatlines. But if you know enough of Sufjan to remember Michigan‘s centerpiece “Detroit”, then you’re probably savvy enough to know this isn’t the end.
v. Futile Reprises
Genre switch! Just as the album started by teasing at folk music before completely shifting gears, this final piece of the puzzle shifts back out of electronic mode, allowing a fully acoustic, stringed instrument (is it Sufjan’s long lost banjo? Sounds like that or perhaps a bozouki) to pluck out a breezy melody, over which Sufjan offers a final apology to whoever he hurt and the conversation continues: “Boy, we can do much more together.” “Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.” “Boy, we made such a mess together.” It’s like the two of them are looking back at all the drama and sort of laughing at the epic scale of it, wondering what all the fuss was about. As the song fades out, maybe we’ve finally made our way out of the crazy, far-off land where computers rule the world and back to some sense of normalcy. It certainly does sound like you’re waking up from the most bizarre dream ever. But it sure was a fascinating dream.
I appreciate Sufjan’s willingness to challenge me even if the results are wildly inconsistent. I’d have been fine to let him spend the rest of his life on the 50 States project and not complain about more of the same if it was good as Illinois. But I think for his part, that could have become a dull and pedantic exercise that led to diminishing returns over time. So I’ll support his journey on the road well-traveled, but also be candid when I think he’s a little too far out of bounds to be truly convincing. It’s a long life. He’s got plenty of chances to get it right.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Futile Devices $1.50
Too Much $2
Age of Adz $1.50
I Walked $1
Now that I’m Older $.50
Get Real Get Right $1.50
Bad Communication -$.50
All for Myself $.50
I Want to Be Well $1
Impossible Soul $4.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: