I was commissioned earlier to write a review for an album for my school newspaper The Chimes, so I wrote one for Sufjan Steven’s latest release, The Age of Adz, after getting over the prospect of not writing it on account of being too scared to publish it to the Biola community, and the possibility of elitist backlash. I decided to write it upon realizing that people are far more civil than I had been imagining, and that I’d be safe in Tropicana anyway. After submitting the review, I was told that, unbeknownst to me, another writer requested to review his album beforehand. So… here are my thoughts on the release that would otherwise just be sitting on my computer. This is the length that it is because they requested 720 words, and this thing is exactly 720 (somehow I am now finally able to hit a word limit and not go totally overboard.) You don’t have to read this, but if you want this record, please support this artist, he is doing good things for music and beyond.
Returning from a long-winded hiatus, Sufjan Stevens officially broke his music-fast with the release of The Age of Adz, inspired by artist and self-proclaimed prophet, Royal Robinson, and the only thing more startling than it’s sonic departure from his past works might just be simply how darn good of an album it is.
The opener is perhaps the only song similar to past Sufjan records. Like most every opener of his, it’s short, gorgeously haunting, somewhat devoid of a chorus, and folk inspired. But fans will notice something is amiss. “What’s this slightly processed sound? Was that a piano loop?” It sounds more like he sent his last studio album’s opener “Concerning the UFO Sighting…” to be remixed by the RCA.
Then “Too Much” kicks in, proving within two seconds that this is anything but a straight folk record. It’s a frantic tango of a song: Sufjan singing over booming clicks and electronic beeps as if Radiohead’s Kid A was dancing with the Super Mario Bros’ 8-bit soundtrack.
The sweeping title track is anthemic and brass driven, while mechanic steam sounds keep rhythm. Spastic and strangely beautiful robotic noises chime in to flavor this triumphant ballad, clocking in at eight minutes long. Musically, “I Walked” is almost hip-hop inspired, and his lyrics illustrate a love that is all but hopeless.
“Now I’m Older” floats on angelic voices and waves of harp strings while Sufjan’s reflections are delivered in a Thom Yorke inspired trill. It’s a haunting break in heavily driven rhythm, but “Get Real Get Right” brings the mechanic pulse right back, building in energy as Sufjan convicts himself and listeners into exploring the meanings of morality, (“I must do myself a favor and get real/ Get right with the Lord.”)
“Vesuvius” is a slow build, starting with a lo-fi piano drone. Slowly the electronic layers which characterize “Adz” begin to take stage as the dismal scene of a metaphoric Pompeii is revealed. Sufjan references himself in the lyrics before the song’s stunning and perhaps worshipful climax and dénouement.
The ebbing “All For Myself” is another brief and beautiful choral driven song, drifting over piano and flutes. It’s the third to the final song but there is still almost half the album remaining in terms of length. It’s hard to imagine at this point what more Sufjan can do that he hasn’t already showcased. Turns out, he still has ground to break.
“I Want To Be Well” is propelled by quickly shifting drum loops as Sufjan shares some of his most intensely personal lyrics on the record as well as grating observations of our generation, (“So do yourself a good, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes/ Illness likes to prey upon the lonely.”) Finally Sufjan articulates, with blistering potency, his seriousness towards perhaps the war against inner demons and universal folly by declaring (“I’m not f*****g around”) about two dozen times.
It’s a service to the album as a whole though, exposing Sufjan as a human in absolute earnest and, even in his visceral speech, reverence. Perhaps his strong usage of language here is the only element more shocking than the hugely eclectic style of Adz, but it’s a powerful album dealing with deeply realized elements of reality and should not just be merely enjoyed as background music with petty words. Sufjan operates under a priority to the song versus the artist, and making himself vulnerable for the sake of getting messages across throughout this entire record is commendable.
The final track is an adventurous 25 minute epic, evolving from devastatingly somber to victoriously hopeful, ending on an ambiguous note. The song brilliantly employs nearly every new musical element of the record, even featuring a few verses in hyper-processed Auto-Tune and thematically running the gamut from forgiveness, pretending, and trying to define everlasting elements of life.
It might not be the most accessible style of music, but behind the masterfully orchestrated cacophony of voice and sound, there are themes and messages which speak to all of us in a fallen yet striving humanity. Through an artist, Sufjan Stevens was inspired to pick up the pieces of his musical retreat to create again, and resume his place as a working artist in his own right. It’s safe to say aspiring people will continue this chain upon experiencing Sufjan’s latest offering.
~Jordan Nakamura. The Chimes. 2010.