Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz
Remember when Sufjan Stevens was a prolific record maker? In the early 2000s, rarely a year passed without a new Sufjan album, and these weren’t slap-dash lo-fi affairs either (with the possible exception of his debut, A Sun Came). These were often immaculately arranged chamber folk epics created by a man so ambitious that we could believe him when he told us he would write an album for each of the fifty states. Fast-forward to 2010, and a few things have changed: Stevens has readily admitted that the Fifty State Project was a publicity stunt, and barring his 2009 neo-classical effort, The BQE, Stevens hasn’t released a new studio album since 2005’s Illinois. Then without warning, Stevens became prolific again. He released the All Delighted People EP, an hour-long affair built around shape-shifting extended tracks that moved beyond his patented indie folk. Only a few days later, he announced his next studio album. Still, if there were any lingering hopes that Stevens was going to return to his former sound on this next album, he finally put them to rest with The Age Of Adz, a restlessly ambitious song cycle that synthesizes indie electronic and classical orchestration. In fact, only the opening song, “Futile Devices,” with its chiming guitar and hushed vocals, could fit in comfortably with his past work.
To his considerable credit, Stevens’ gift for melody shines through on every track here, even if the approach has shifted dramatically. “Too Much”‘s glitchy pop bears comparison to Dntel (and recalls Stevens’ own Enjoy Your Rabbit), at least until it devolves into a stew of spiraling orchestration and decaying keyboards. Meanwhile, album highlight “The Age Of Adz” sounds like Stevens put Illinois‘ “Chicago” into a blender, what with its anthemic choir harmonies and spacious vocal asides. But if Adz isn’t ever really a difficult listen—Sufjan isn’t trying to scare anyone off—it suffers in a way that his earlier albums have not. While a good majority of the songs in his catalog haven’t been explicitly personal, Stevens’ arrangements and songcraft have given many of his songs the intimacy of confessionals. Here, many of the tracks are lyrically heartfelt, but the affected vocals and dense, experimental music make Stevens sound oddly distant, especially as the music often obscures his words. However, when he is emotionally clear, as on “I Want To Be Well” and “All For Myself,” the music beautifully complements his songs’ humanity. Taking advantage of the extended track lengths (the album runs 75 minutes and only 11 tracks), he also indulges himself in musical flights of fancy that unfortunately don’t always go in interesting directions. This is nowhere more apparent than on the last track, “Impossible Soul.” At a gargantuan 26 minutes, Stevens begins with series of gentle but static melodies and an embarrassing Auto-Tune interlude before landing on a genuinely memorable anthem fifteen minutes in. That’s the album in a nutshell. There is a lot of good music here but too often it is buried beneath meandering codas and unfounded experimentation. Make no mistake, Sufjan Stevens is an extremely talented musician; he has great ideas and the musicianship to execute them. Yet, The Age Of Adz is a transitional album, one that will hopefully mean more in the long run as long as Stevens remains prolific and learns how to successfully merge these new sounds into his music. As it stands, though, the album is frequently beautiful yet can’t help but feel a bit disappointing.