October 31, 2014

KIRSHNER | Age of Adz: Sufjan Stevens Combats Modern Monotony

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Sufjan Stevens made his name as a melodious, indie-folk singer, boasting unique tracks and a distinct, inimitable sound. His tracks feature subtly poignant messages despite their lighthearted feel, exemplified in one stunningly introspective song about his suddenly complex relationship with God following the death of a friend (this, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of his career thus far: “Casimir Pulaski Day”). In addition to this invaluable skill, Stevens is often accompanied by a riveting symphony of complementary instruments in his music, especially in his most successful albums, Illinois and The Avalanche. If you do not know these deeply thoughtful, symphonic and diverse tracks of early Sufjan Stevens, I implore you to listen to them. However, rather than spending this time lauding (justifiably) Stevens’ earlier works, I want to discuss his evolution and experimentation in the 2010 album Age of Adz. Fascinating, messy and definitively different, Age of Adz is a strange new realm for Stevens and a rare, unique experience for listeners.

I must admit that when I first listened to Age of Adz, I thought it was more than a slight train wreck. My limited patience for electronica, and my fondness (and continued preference) for the more natural, unmitigated sound of Stevens’ voice and instrumental backdrop in earlier albums left me relatively perturbed upon listening to the 2010 album. Despite this initial reaction, I have become increasingly fascinated with this album in recent months. I don’t believe it is a masterpiece, or the travesty I first envisioned, but a fascinating and respectable experiment by a talented, if somewhat scrambled musician.

This album is weird; peppered with machine like noises and supported by strange, irregular electronic beats. Despite the presence of electronica, the album is certainly a far cry from pop. Stevens interjects long, almost silent instrumental sections and bizarre layered whispering as well as numerous idiosyncratic sounds that I can’t adequately describe under a word limit. The last song is fascinatingly varied and somewhat repetitive, clocking in at 25 minutes. Good luck dancing along. The songs are occasionally catchy, but mostly they are just interesting, conveying a real feeling to the listener of being along for the ride on this disjointed, creative process.

Despite the drastic stylistic changes, one feature of Stevens’ music remains constant:

I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing/consumed by selfish thoughts/

I could have loved you/I could have changed you/I wouldn’t feel so/I wouldn’t be so/consumed by selfish thoughts

Stevens sings on the album’s titular track, “Age of Adz.” The emotional lyrics and profound introspection that distinguished his earlier albums are still omnipresent here. His self-deprecation and demonization are salient as he sings about his selfish desires and controlling mannerisms. He mourns the loss of what could have been, solemnly acknowledges how he could have acted, and regrets deeply who he is today.

I can empathize with a variety of views of Age of Adz. An important point to consider when evaluating the album however is the offbeat, experimental nature of the project. Whether you love this album or hate it, Stevensshould receive some level of respect for his decision to buy-in so heavily to a style that is so far from the mainstream. While many other artists like Coldplay abandon their origins to make popular, commercially successful music, Stevens does the opposite, abandoning the consensus to cultivate a unique sound. I am the first to admit that I pine for more tracks like “Chicago,” “Jacksonville” and “Pittsfield,” from his earlier albums, but I have nothing but respect for a rare artist willing to strive for artistic havens rather than commercial success.

So, I don’t believe that Age of Adz deserves an album of the year award, but I certainly don’t believe it should be casually dismissed. Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz is messy, inventive, enigmatic, and just what we need.

Elie Kirshner is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected].