Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Age Of Adz - Sufjan Stevens

The Age Of Adz

Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Without putting too reductive a point on it, to mourn Sufjan Stevens’ preciousness is to mourn his finest moments; from Seven Swans to Illinoise (and, to a lesser extent, The Avalanche and All Delighted People EP), Stevens gradually modernized folk with the widescreen scope of rustic hymnals to multi-suite orchestral pop, all the while never forsaking his tender muse. A vague and often contentious concoction of God, women, men and family, Stevens’ sentimentality acted as the central nerve to his songwriting’s voice, effectively imbuing his past couple recordings (including Songs For Christmas, probably the most precious by default) with a warmth that aurally somehow represented home, so who could blame us for anticipating a new Sufjan LP like the return of a family member?

Forget the "States Project" – the proximity of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ or ‘Jacksonville’ never felt further than a nearby neighbourhood we may have never lived in but recall because something powerful happened to us there. Us being the listener, the royal we who collectively elbowed our own personal trials next to Sufjan’s; by that measure, The Age Of Adz only permits empathy if you’re nearly as self-involved as Stevens sounds here.

So in other words: don’t expect The Age Of Adz to sound like a long-lost reunion, as this isn’t the same Sufjan Stevens we last visited in Brooklyn, circa ‘Christmas In July’, 2005. He has his reasons, sure, although they’re enshrouded in the same vagueness – those unspoken descriptors that allowed us to revel in his inherent coyness – that now takes responsibility for The Age Of Adz’ disconnect. Stevens’ health-battles, while quite rightly none of our business, brought him to the introspective cliff-jumping that songs like ‘Vesuvius’ and ‘I Want To Be Well’ deliberate. His direct soul-searching, which felt so unprovoked and rewarding on All Delighted People, gets increasingly straightforward from the outset of ‘Futile Devices’, where Stevens lyrically paints all the twilight corners of a living-room crash and the host he confesses to love. Complimented by a lushly organic arrangement of piano and acoustic guitar that evokes something Joni Mitchell may have done if she was writing Blue in 2010, the opener’s also a parting shot for other things that Stevens deems as futile. Namely, his past.

Stevens is the first to tell us he’s “not fucking around” and, in that instance, we believe him. His earnestness in dour situations translates well to aggressive ones, and ‘I Want To Be Well’ stands proud in all its synth-bubbling and drum-cascading as a typhoon of human defiance. It might’ve been a rousing finale, there at the farthest divide from ‘Futile Devices’, but that honour goes to the twenty-five minute song-suite ‘Impossible Soul’ which basically finds Stevens fucking around. A lot. Not too long ago, a track like ‘Vesuvius’ would’ve held true to its segue-status by clocking within the three-minute scale, but here it’s padded to an unreasonable five-minutes as Stevens repeatedly sings himself a pep-talk toward good health. Coming from the man who thought we needed four different versions of ‘Chicago’ on The Avalanche and five discs of holiday cheer on Songs From Christmas, excess is part of Stevens’ musical DNA. But what usually camouflaged as “smart excess”, the kind that in short spurts sympathetically lent itself toward the greater picture, clashes on The Age Of Adz. Some truly majestic songs steer clear of Stevens’ tendency, like the behemoth title track and ‘I Walked’, but his excess often clutters that bigger picture, reflecting its author as more of a show-off than a visionary.

Still, some fans mourning Sufjan Stevens’ overt preciousness (R.I.P. 2003-2006?) have taken the melodramatic stance of calling this album a vanity project. The bitterness of that accusation suggests an epic betrayal on Stevens’ part and, while The Age Of Adz is indeed a knife - cutting a perforated line from his recent catalog - no one’s getting stabbed in the back. After the frenzied speculation on Stevens’ “existential crisis” as a songwriter and whether his prolific streak mid-decade had rendered him creatively empty, his mammoth step shows that Mr. Stevens hasn’t been burdened by baggage.

The baggage is all ours. I shared in it, expecting the gentle strums of ‘Future Devices’ to placate and extend Stevens’ knack for soft-sung intimacy. So when ‘Too Much’ explodes with, well, just that, I viewed such a construct as Stevens denying his own natural charisma and talent, hiding the banjo and acoustic guitar that commiserated with his fragility in favour of shock-and-awe electronic effects that inflate every past subtlety into a time-and-space crisis.

The realization that The Age Of Adz isn’t so different from, say, The Avalanche, struck me many listens later, hand-in-hand with the understanding that, despite some electronic foundations, Sufjan Steven’s songwriting has hardly changed. His vocal tone carries greater urgency and these songs amp up the symphonic bombast his previous records rationed wisely, but his sonic palette isn’t to blame for The Age Of Adz’ overacting (even if it enables those excesses a bit). What ails this intermittently brilliant album, and what likely caused his breakdown over what constitutes a song, is Stevens’ Epic-Sentimental-Disorder (ESD), which drops the reigns of self-control that disciplined his most heartbreaking work. No one should disrespect or doubt his need to move forward - even if that evolution includes auto-tune, I guess - but these results, all magnified slabs of synth, fluttering woodwinds and endless refrains of personal struggle, compile into a statement that sounds important but feels surprisingly undernourished.

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