By Dustin VandeHoef
You’d be forgiven if, after hearing ‘The Age of Adz‘ opening track for the first time, you thought Sufjan was beginning to get a bit predictable. Acoustic strumming? Check. Slight piano line? Check. Soft-spoken crooning of lost love? Check. You made a good song/opener with ‘Futile Devices’ Stevens but you’re becoming a bit of a stereotype of yourself. Of course, you would then have mere seconds to brace for an impact you couldn’t have seen coming.
As ‘Futile Devices‘ comes to an abrupt end and as ‘Too Much‘ begins – a droplet of electro noise falls and splashes into the headphones. What is this? More glitchy gurgling bubbles up as something seems to rise from the depths – and suddenly Sufjan pulls you under, into the world of his seemingly shattered psyche.
Anyone who’s closely followed Stevens since the release of his ‘Illinoise’ (an album well at home on many Best Albums of the Decade lists) knows that he’s been a troubled man. Many interviews painted him as an artist lost in what to do next. He explained that the structures and ideas of albums, and even songs, had been lost to him and that he didn’t know where to begin again. And so it seems he picked up his dusty synthesizer and sound pad (don’t worry he brought along plenty of his trusty trumpets and flutes too) and went to work on ‘Adz‘
The album itself is a far cry from the stadium folk sound of ‘Illinois’ and it’s tragic stories of other people’s lives. ‘Adz‘ is instead the glitchy exploration of no one other Sufjan himself, and the heartbreak he is experiencing due to (what we can only assume to be) the messy, ending of a serious relationship.
The title track opens with apocalyptic grandeur, aggressive trumpets and conflicting electronics give way to what sounds like an 8 minute long suicide note – ‘I wasn’t made for life!’ he shouts. Before stripping away all the sounds and leaving just himself and his banjo humbly before us and saying to his lost love ‘I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing/consumed by selfish thoughts/it’s only that I/still love you deeply/it’s all the love I got’. It’s all so real, so honest you can’t help but be moved.
And everytime we’re afraid the chaos will overtake us in the album Sufjan tames it back, if only for a brief moment. Songs like ‘I Walked‘ (For I deserve more/for at least I deserve the respect of a kiss goodbye) ‘Now that I’m Older‘, and ‘Bad Communication‘ (Don’t look/don’t walk away when I am speaking…Don’t be so funny with me/I’m not laughing) work as safe houses in the emotional storm Sufjan is intent on getting us (and himself) through.
‘Get Real, Get Right‘ shows the composer working through his own (or is it ours?) problems with God. ‘I know I’ve lost all conscience/I know I’ve lost all shame/but I must do the right thing/I must do my self a favor/and get real/get right/with the Lord’. Sufjans always been great at singing songs of faith while never appearing preachy, as even here it seems more directed towards himself than anyone else.
‘I Want to be Well‘ is the second to the last track and contains a moment of such cathartic bliss it’s shocking to experience. A pounding scattered drum intro, which eventually transforms into a guitar led chanting of the song’s title, releases suddenly into Sufjan shouting ‘I’m not fucking around’ repeatedly over an ever increasing volume of female vocals and scratchy synths. If any other artist would’ve sang this chances are it would have rung hollow, seeing how de-saturated our culture has become towards swearing. But coming from Sufjan- God fearing indie legend, you know very well that he is indeed not “fucking around”, not at all.
One more song on the album before Sufjan releases us from his torn up mind but he’s not about to let us go easily. ‘Impossible Soul‘ is the album’s 25 minute (yes, 25 minute) closer and after repeated listens serves it’s role perfectly. When I saw him live at the end of October he described this song as a look into the psyches of people and how we deal with our problems. Although I’m sure none of us will ever understand it’s full meaning, the 5 distinct movements within the song do play to that of a mind struggling with an emotional situation and the best way to handle it. We have the auto-tuned Sufjan telling us halfway through how stupid he (we?) was, and before that, the female vocals begging us not to be distracted, and finally the whole thing dissipates and for the final 3 minutes we are left with the simplest Sufjan we know, banjo in hand, leading us out, grabbing us by the hand and pulling us up from his anguish that he pushed us into.
I used alot of negative sounding words in writing this (chaos, noise, storm, anguish, etc) but when wielded by Sufjan these words become beautiful and powerful. Music is only truly music when the people who are making it lay their very soul before the listener, inviting us in to share in what they have experienced and, if we want, to destroy and criticize it. In this view ‘Adz‘ is flawless. We experience for 75 minutes a man laid bare and defeated before us pouring out his concerns and troubles, and only hoping to find some sort of healing in it.
I decided not to give this one a score since it’s gonna be a different album to everyone. I can’t recommend listening to it enough though, it is a testament that music, as some fear, is not dead in our generation. The sound may prove overwhelming at times (even if you are used to electronica) and the themes may seem too abstract to mean anything but keep listening and you’ll discover every sound has it’s place and every word plays it’s part in building us a very whole picture of a very broken man