Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2010)

By Calum Marsh | 21 October 2010

In his introduction to the 2006 re-release of Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers talks a bit about our cultural fascination with artistic endeavors as vast in scope as David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page opus—how we tend to gravitate toward those projects which exist outside the realm of preconceived feasibility, works of such gross ambition that it seems nearly impossible to reconcile their existence with the ultimately imperfect people responsible for them. It’s fitting that as proof, Eggers cites none other than Sufjan Stevens, whose 50 States project seemed almost too ambitious to be possible, or, put another way, just too good to be true.

Which is why I was so disappointed earlier this year to learn from Sufjan himself that the project was just that—that the whole thing was, in his own words, “such a joke” to begin with. Because even though the project’s completion looked less and less likely with each follow-up-less year, for me the whole thing was most definitely not a joke—it was fundamental to my faith in Sufjan as the kind of era-defining genius I’d hoped he could be. Dispelling that illusion so explicitly was a total reality check, and in many ways the new Sufjan Stevens, the more decidedly human individual responsible for the “interesting” multimedia aberration The BQE (2009) and, more recently, the disappointing All Delighted People “EP,” was signaling the end of the old Sufjan Stevens, looking unstoppably ambitious no more.

Dom put it well in the state-of-the-Sufjan address that was his recent EP review, writing that Sufjan began “to gradually accept that his grand aspirations were looking more and more impossible and, with acceptance, doubt the very foundation from which all that notoriety and money and acclaim, all that music, was born.” The problem with the old Sufjan’s grand ambition, as I see it, is that though ambition was required in ample supply to simply get the States Project going, ambition would have been required in practically infinite supply to see the project through. He had delivered an epic and then another epic and then felt he needed to deliver 48 more and, really, who the fuck wouldn’t bow to that kind of pressure?

But even though he may have abandoned a project with an overarching theme, and even though our “new” Sufjan is still capable of digressive EPs and Gershwin-copping soundtracks, he is also still more than capable, as The Age of Adz proves, of making not just great music but exactly the kind of ambitious work Eggers says we’re drawn to. The Age of Adz is an album that for all its psychological and emotional instability exclaims that we never had anything to worry about in the first place: the man continues his commitment to the bigger project, to engaging with us on a deeper level, to creating music that, like Illinoise and like Infinite Jest, fascinates us as an emblem of unmitigated ambition.

And so The Age of Adz is, above all else, a huge relief: all faith in Sufjan, having wavered not so much by the quality of his last two releases as by the future trends of which they seemed indicative, is hereby restored in full. The old Sufjan Stevens, the infinitely creative boy-wonder responsible for some of the most triumphant indie rock and folk of the last decade, is back in a big way. Here he resumes his unstoppable march of progress, enveloping emerging trends, ever-adding to the orchestral milieu, a milieu now further expanded to include not only Sufjan’s usual big-band brass and support-section choir, but a slew of new electronic toys. Just don’t call this “electronica,” which seems to be the de facto reaction to the album’s employment of electronic instrumentation. Even at its most ostensibly “weird,” like the skittering glitch-folk intro to “Too Much,” Sufjan is too steeped in his traditional songwriting prowess for his music to ever feel especially avant-garde. The man is certainly audacious, but his goals have never been to explore totally foreign musical territory so much as to take the whole great gamut of pop forms and conventions and fuck with them all as extravagantly as possible. The Age of Adz is content to cherry-pick, reappropriating elements of electronic music without even coming close to being his “electronic album.”

Much has been written, too, of some potentially questionable additions to Sufjan’s usual repertoire, most contentiously Auto-tune. The effect’s been slowly making the indie rock rounds over the last year and a half, but where its value for many musicians seems to lie primarily in novelty or humor—it’s borrowed from mainstream hip-hop as an ironic gesture, wink-wink, see?—for Sufjan it’s just another new sound to be assimilated and arranged. He’s always been something of a musical Katamari, barreling through pop culture to scoop up whatever odds and ends he passes, and Auto-tune is no exception. It’s here to be deployed like everything else, coming in mid-way through the final track briefly and tastefully, and in the end it’s subtler than any knee-jerk reaction to its inclusion would allow.

Sufjan’s proficiency with larger-than-life arrangements has always been one of his strongest qualities as a musician, and across The Age of Adz he wields that proficiency, brazenly, like a kind of weapon. Where most of All Delighted People found Sufjan retreating into the folksy austerity of an album like Seven Swans (2004)—the starkness of which, though beautiful, has always felt like something of a comfort-zone for Sufjan—The Age of Adz pulls no punches, veering not just back into Illinoise territory but way out beyond it. Because if All Delighted People was superficially pretty but still fundamentally a failure, the perfunctory template of its songs (two clusterfuck title-tracks notwithstanding) is almost certainly to blame. Bringing that penchant for grandiosity back into the spotlight—and doing so unabashedly, without concern for how ridiculous the whole endeavor could have looked—turned out to be exactly the move Sufjan needed to make.

That The Age of Adz comes bookended by brief acoustic numbers very much in keeping with the stripped-down style of Seven Swans and All Delighted People is telling, and their function seems clear: offering us only fleeting glimpses of the naturalistic album this could have been, Sufjan acknowledges the ease with which these disparate modes come to him, how these bare ballads play just a small role in his wider, world-enveloping palette. Sufjan, still ever-ambitious, requires a larger canvas than the one his guitar and his voice can offer him. And “Futile Devices,” the album’s delicate opener, recognizes the failure of simply saying what needs to be said: “Words are futile devices,” he sings, before the wealth of “Too Much”’s electronics blooms and takes over. If his words alone are futile, instruments take their place—he’s augmenting his language with music, letting an ocean of noise voice feelings he can’t talk through. And as the album draws to an eventual close, it takes a final dip into acoustic balladry to clarify a long-held delusion: “Impossible Soul”‘s encouraging refrain of “boy, we can do so much more together” gets undermined, reheard, finally, as “boy, we made such a mess together.” That “boy” changes meaning, a turnaround that serves to underscore Sufjan’s earlier assertion: words are futile devices, their meaning never fixed. Faced with a useless language Sufjan sees no alternative but to retreat headlong into overstuffed, serious arrangements.

Sufjan takes the breadth of his arrangements seriously enough for them to work because the scope of his project doesn’t allow for coolly ironic posturing. An album like this demands self-seriousness, as well as the hope that your listeners are able to take it seriously, too. It’s fitting that Eggers should compare the 50 States Project to Infinite Jest, because nobody would have valued the earnestness of The Age of Adz as much as David Foster Wallace, who famously championed those who would dare to produce work with honesty and conviction, who would opt not to shield themselves with the distance provided by irony. And as irony still dominates independent music, the lifeblood of every chill new sub-genre, The Age of Adz—an album so easily dismissed with an eye-roll or a smirk—is hugely refreshing.

I think Wallace would have been proud that an established musician with a hard-earned reputation could write a song like “Impossible Soul,” a half hour, five-part suite so endearingly over-the-top it has a heart-on-sleeve, musical theatre middle section wherein Sufjan and company bellow that “it’s not so impossible!” to an eruption of synths and horns. I find the song, and in particular this cheerleading, almost profoundly exhilarating. But I also, because of how pure and frail it all sounds, feel almost protective of it, like I can’t stand the thought of anybody making fun of it even though I recognize, or maybe because I recognize, how easy it is to make fun of. And on “I Want to Be Well,” the penultimate track and what we might consider the album’s climax, Sufjan sings of depression and suicide with disarming vulnerability, showing a degree of candor very far removed from the sweeping histories of Michigan or Illinoise. A line like “I’m not fucking around” might be inelegant by Sufjan’s high lyrical standards, but nothing he’s sung before has carried quite the same weight as those four simple words do here.

Such candor pervades The Age of Adz, which is in general a much more autobiographical work than we’ve come to expect from Sufjan. If it’s true, as Dom wrote in his review of All Delighted People, that “something happened inside of Sufjan Stevens that the rest of the world … wasn’t partial to,” this album hints at what that something might have been. Sufjan’s never been known for straightforward confessionals; even Seven Swans, his comparably barest album, could be said to employ the first-person as the voice of a character. On Michigan and to an even greater extent Illinoise, Sufjan traded mostly in geographical trivia, taking broad city histories and shrinking them, extracting little details for close examination. The Age of Adz inverts the process: rather than making national history personal, Sufjan takes his own internal crises—most of these songs deal directly with the dissolution of a relationship, be it with a girl or God—and completely blows it up, making his personal history sound like the history of the world.

In fact, the historical accounts of albums prior seem almost too much for Sufjan to bear; he sings of suffering the commonality of “extraordinary histories, ordinary histories” on “I Want to Be Well.” All of the characters he’s played, like all of the ordinary people around him, seem to be getting on with their lives, keeping things together, while Sufjan can’t help but fall apart. Now he only sees himself in things beyond his understanding: on “Vesuvius,” Sufjan imagines himself as a volcano, finally speaking to his pain directly, sounding half-crazed: “Sufjan, the panic inside / The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” “Vesuvius” is so…apocalyptic, as brutally rendered as it is overblown. But in the commingling of tone and perspective, it feels both intimate and bombastic, a feat that’s maybe never been more successful in Stevens’ work than here.

Jonathan Franzen has written a lot about how the contemporary novel, struggling to survive in a landscape overrun by the micro-distractions of smartphones and social networks, must be somehow more than all the white noise surrounding it, how it must provide such a comparatively deep experience that all that little nonsense stuff can’t compete. I think that if music has the capacity to affect us deeply, if we’re able to engage with great albums in the same way we can engage with great novels, we need something similar. We need difficult, sprawling, messy albums like The Age of Adz, albums that ask of us that we take them seriously on the promise that the rewards will be worth the work. But that means lowering our critical defenses long enough to see if this is worth it; it means being brave enough to let a song like “Impossible Soul” be exciting rather than ridiculous; it means continuing to gravitate toward works of ambition that try so hard to be great at a time when it’s much more fashionable to strike a disinterested pose and forget it. That’s not so impossible, is it?