Sufjan Stevens: “The Age of Adz”
He’s a simple man, Sufjan Stevens– but only when he wants to be. Thus far into his story, the most significant incident has been that of Seven Swans, a folksy little record fueled by banjo but built on prayer. Sufjan was content, back then, to pick his way through songs that referenced Flannery O’Connor and the biblical prophets, that summoned the words of Revelation as an invitation to cosmic, apocalyptic worship. That was an album of mystery, simple and profound– itself a bit of a revelation, if you will– and to say that it didn’t have much going on would be to discount the roaring silence between the notes, the sacredness of every soft-spoken word. Those songs were generous, and Sufjan their humble servant.
In truth, I may be overstating things a bit; chalk it up to fond memories clouding my judgment. Right now I can barely hear those whispered songs over the bluster of Age of Adz, an album arriving some six years after Seven Swans and representing something of its antithesis– for certain, it could not be more radical in its contrast. I should pause to note just what an achievement this is; that Sufjan’s art encompasses these wildly divergent strands is itself an impressive thing. One might ask which one represents the “real” Sufjan, and I’m happy to speculate that the answer is probably both. And that’s really fairly staggering, for the difference between Seven Swans and The Age of Adz is not simply two facets of an artist whose interests are great and varied, but two entirely different perspectives on music and art. In the former, Sufjan serves his songs; in the latter, he puts the songs to work for him.
And he is a demanding boss. The Age of Adz is a racket, in the most literal sense– a jumble of loudness, of chaos, of garish colors and motifs that don’t seem to belong on the same album together, much less the same song, in the same moment. How else does one describe a record in which massive orchestras and choirs of voices are put into overdrive, then damn near driven off a cliff by their manic conductor? Where video game sound effects compete for space with classical arrangements, where choral singing is married to talkboxing? I can think of no other adjective– save, perhaps, for gaudy.
Lest anyone think my beef with Sufjan Stevens is that he has made an album that is simply very different from Seven Swans, let us note that this beastly thing is a long time in the works. Between these two albums, of course, there was Illinois, an album that was similarly overblown, but typically winsome in its pomp. It was also an album that was purported to be the second in a series of albums dedicated to the fifty states– something Stevens says now was a joke all along, but sure seemed real at the time. It was an album that spilled over into a second collection of B-sides and outtakes, its initial 73-minute runtime not being enough, and in which song titles encompassed multiple clauses, some of them rambling on for longer than the actual track’s duration.
A man of simplicity once, perhaps, but no more: Sufjan Stevens is known, more and more, not for his genius, precisely, but simply his excess. And I would contend that there is a very real distinction between the two. Some content that his music is masterfully layered, and frequently that is so; here, however, noise is simply piled higher and higher, seemingly without rhyme or reason, lacking both restraint and musicality. Likewise, there are those who acclaim him for his enormous sense of scope, something that can be quite rightly said of Illinois, but not of this, an album with no space to breath, no sense of proportion or dimension– simply of claustrophobia.
There is a feeling of randomness here that is difficult to shake. The first song, “Futile Devices,” is Sufjan strumming away at his banjo like the 50 States project never happened and Autotune was never invented; two minutes in, he seemingly grows bored of this, and so on pile the sound effects and the herky-jerk electronica; “Too Much” shoots for Bjork-ian heights but comes off as naturally and gracefully as a woman in a swan dress. I might argue that its melody is strikingly lovely, but rather than preserve its beauty, Sufjan undercuts it by giving it to us in the ugliest form one can fathom– Casio keyboard effects, synthetic squelches, an orchestral sweep and brass-band pomp. Then there are the kinds of ominous programmed tones that Radiohead used on “Idiotheque,” married to a trilling flute straight out of Illinois, all of which gives away first to a Daft Punk synth breakdown, then exultant trumpets. I just don’t know about all of this, Sufjan. It seems a little much.
But it’s only the genesis of this sprawling mess of a thing, one which culminates in its tacky spectacle not with “I Want to Be Well,” as bizarre and off-putting as that song is– it begins with the flat beat and cheesy patter of a novelty tune before devolving into a truly ugly crescendo of noise and profanity– but with “Impossible Soul,” a 25-minute suite tacked on to the end of a record that already threatens to top an hour in length, and which feels oddly like the start of a whole new project instead of the conclusion of the one that came before it. The song is almost unfathomable in its sheer indulgence, but what amazes is the way Stevens sets what sounds like an uncharacteristically intimate broken-love lament and sets it amidst such showy surroundings. It reminds me, perhaps perversely, of Stevens’ oddly giddy reading of Bob Dylan’s end-times lament, “Ring Them Bells,” insofar as it displays a rather astonishing lack of understanding about the relationship between sound and song.
Some, no doubt, will accuse me of being rather reactionary in this one, but let me be clear in saying that my distaste for this recording is not a matter of its being noisy, exactly, so much as its being rather senseless. On that point, I should note that my favorite thing here is quite probably the title track, a feverish transmission from the age of the apocalypse, the song rife with paranoia and confusion and the arrangement actually mirroring it quite nicely, horror-movie sound effects and Kid A chilliness enhancing rather than detracting from the lyric and the performance. To that end, though, I am sorry to say that this is no Kid A, nor another album of the same cheerful nature and well-intentioned ambition as Illinois, but rather a work that brings to the foreground a problem that began bubbling to the surface with that album– namely, a nagging feeling that, more and more, this music is just about Sufjan serving his own ends, and, in much the same way that the musical motifs of Illinois actually had nothing at all to do with the musical roots of Illinois, the music on Age of Adz is rather rootless, a style that betrays not covert substance but only a lack of sense, and a sad realization that these songs might have been better served with the flamboyance cast aside in favor of humility. Humility and simplicity.