October 21, 2010

Test Spins: Sufjan Stevens

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If one is to criticize Sufjan Stevens, it will be for anything but his ambition. Following the breakout success of the delicately arranged and historically obsessed Illinois, he has seen a turbulent five years that saw the release of an outtakes record, an album of Christmas songs, a multimedia symphony and an EP. Such a high creative output, though, was followed by a well-publicized creative crisis and the subsequent abandonment of his admittedly ridiculous “50 States Project.” The Age of Adz, Stevens’s first foray into a strictly song-based project, raises some major questions: Does an absence of conceptual cohesiveness threaten to undermine the classically-influenced arrangements that have garnered him so much praise? Will Stevens’s goal to “just write music” compromise his unique vision and talent?

Fortunately for the expectant fan, Adz hardly falls into any of these possible potholes, but instead navigates around them in unexpected and surprising ways. Gone is Illinois’s immersive Americana, which is replaced by a fusion of electronic beats and synthesizers with Sufjan’s classicist orchestral instrumentation, leading to the creation of electronic symphonies in the truest sense. Such a fusion of sounds is achieved most brilliantly on “Too Much”, whose glitchy IDM beats and cascading synths are augmented beautifully by elegant strings and fluttering flutes, and title track “Age of Adz,” which sounds like a 21st century take on a Bach fugue, with harps, sleigh bells and brass crescendoing over muffled electroclash beats.

Without a responsibility to focus on the bigger picture, Sufjan’s lyrics benefit somewhat. While the city shoutouts and character profiles of Illinois were clever, Adz’s lyrics are simultaneously more fun and more personal. Album opener “Futile Devices” tells of his inability to tell a best friend, who he thinks of as a brother, that he loves him; “Vesuvius” details his struggle to keep his own darkness contained within himself (he invokes his own name during the song); and, possibly thanks to a rather anguished vocal turn, penultimate track “I Want to Be Well” reveals a deeply troubled narrator, with Sufjan desperately announcing the he’s “not fucking around.”

And for those unconvinced of Sufjan’s ambition on Age of Adz, there’s finale “Impossible Soul,” which runs through various movements, moods and themes (and even auto-tune!), encapsulating the entirety of the album into one gorgeous, sprawling 25 minute epic that celebrates life and, quite adorably, the virtues of togetherness. And so, concluded, we are left with a record that finds Sufjan Stevens liberated from his self-imposed artistic loftiness and finally creating uninhibited, diverse and personal music. In a banner month for indie rock releases, Age of Adz comes out on top.


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Original Author: James Rainis