on November 4, 2010
He's taken us through the States of Michigan and Illinois - studiously, charmingly, unflagging graciousness all the way - and now Sufjan Stevens has radically revised the itinerary for an unforeseen intergalactic launch to uncharted destinations, to a place that might just have to be called "The State of My Heart". And it's a territory at least as expansive as the imagined Universe, apparently.
A long track-by-track appreciation follows, but here's the bottom line: THE AGE OF ADZ is a concept album that takes as its subject the human experience of that one greatest thing that remains: Love. Awkward enough to type that out here as an anonymous reviewer, but Sufjan Stevens the artist has gone and built a veritable public monument of an album around it, on it, with it, from it, to it, for it.
And he really has done it proper, inside and out, backwards and forwards, with his heart hanging out.
From inner space of the Soul to outer space of the Cosmos, this album is an aural and conceptual collision of scale worthy of the task that it meets head-on. And it's crafted and sequenced with more discipline and unfaltering intuition than might be apparent from cursory and piecemeal assessments. For the commission that it has taken on (Cher auto-tunes it to you from the year 1998: "Do you belieeeve in life after love?"), this record arrives whole, a clear dispatch from some very far-flung outposts.
So here we go, a Lonely Planet overview of the trip I took on THE AGE OF ADZ:
"FUTILE DEVICES" is, for a melodist and lyricist of Sufjan's gifts and abilities, essentially a throwaway, and definitely a throwback. As opening track, though, it's in the right place as a kind of dedication and epigram: scrapbook mementos of friendship & intimacy, scrawled memories of warmth, tucked away in a safe place, close to the body, before launching off into deep-freeze outer limits.
And a beleaguered lyricist's frank admission, right up front: "words are futile devices".
"TOO MUCH" opens the concept album proper with synthesizer squelches like a baptism of primordial slime. Something's definitely changing, mutation looks to be inevitable - but it's impossible to assess or prevent damage while sloshing around in this predicament. So this track, along with the two that follow, thematically and collectively sound like valiant Boy Scout attempts at speedy extrication and escape. Both the smartest and the dumbest move, and all perfectly necessary, perhaps, at this emotional juncture.
"TOO MUCH" plays like a State of the Union address on Love's falling out, growing progressively tenser and more serious as it proceeds. The war is definitely on and we're being forced to take it into outer space - plans and coordinates are on the screen for your review.
But all such formalities and strategies are prematurely and effectively blasted to Kingdom Come when the next track, "AGE OF ADZ", sneaks into the control room on four computer beeps and just pushes the button: a bombastic Apocalypse of Love's recriminations, existential panic escalating into too-hasty grasping at always-imminent Transcendence, ending only with more mournful explanations and self-recriminations - alone with a banjo, crouched, maybe, in a bomb shelter. And if that sounds like a real pretentious and overloaded assessment, it's more or less what this track merits. Overblown and precarious, it also makes perfect conceptual and emotional sense in its place and context.
With such grand and necessary meltdowns out of the way (for the time being), "I WALKED" is the track that soberly straightens itself out in the mirror and gets ready for its ostensible swan song. A heartrending and dignified farewell performance, attractive in the measured sadness of its earnest grievances, this is the point at which most well-meaning friends would administer warm hugs and admiring pats on the back, fire off text message salutes, all in praise of emotional maturity, courage and honesty, and what else have you.
And at this stage, a still-aching, heart-wounded soul would be dazed and weakened enough to really want to believe all that.
And it is also from here on that THE AGE OF ADZ, to these critical ears, starts to become really interesting and involving. The early stages of network consultation and public demonstration done, whoever now pushes on, pushes on alone, by dint of sheer emotional fortitude and crack intuition.
In terms of songwriting craft and production polish, the next track, "NOW THAT I'M OLDER", along with "BAD COMMUNICATION", is one of the few obvious bummers on the album. Titled as a coming-of-age number, it seems to convey that process as a kind of slow spiritual diffusion into the ether, a really depressed and melodramatic emotional wallow, in other words.
These two lesser tracks, however, appropriately represent the emotional nadirs of the album's song-cycle, and they serve their purpose well in repetitious and desultory melodies, prosaic and scattershot lyrics, dragging tempos and haphazard production. Thematically, they sound like the sad diminishing returns of long shut-in days. And also significantly, they come on either end of what is arguably the album's masterpiece, track six, "GET REAL GET RIGHT".
There's that old religious adage about the Almighty being near to those poor and lowly in spirit, and on the fantastic "GET REAL GET RIGHT" - which opens with fat beats overlaid with the sound of syncopated human hiccups, like someone finally regaining his breath after a bout of terrible weeping - it's as if the drawn-out days of an aimless depression have been graciously interrupted by decree of some truly divine intervention. In sudden wakefulness, certain veils are lifted, all the necessary lenses float and align in place, and like that old Television song says, "My eyes are like telescopes".
The lyrics risk preachy grandstanding in their telegraphic prophesying, but "GET REAL GET RIGHT" powers past such pitfalls by the heat of genuine moral conviction, the press of personal culpability. The performance here is totally committed, the production bang-on, and incredibly enough, the whole thing seems to accomplish exactly what it set out to do, something like a heat-seeking missile compared to the mistimed A-bomb of "AGE OF ADZ" a few tracks earlier. The synthesizers at the thunderous climax are excellently deployed, mixed to maximum effectiveness, like heavenly mecha robots wreaking righteous havoc across morally torpid metropolises the world over.
All in all, this track is just unimpeachable, the moral and spiritual centre of an album whose concept could not have held so strongly without this kind of lightning rod of conviction.
But then, because no mortal can indefinitely sustain himself at such levels of blazing prophetic inspiration, there comes the severe and necessary comedown of "BAD COMMUNICATION", with opening synths like platypus farts and lyrics aptly demonstrating the relational breakdown of its title: one-sided conversations with a person suddenly a stranger, sharing no such moral or spiritual compunctions, middle-of-the-night convictions breaking down in the bleak light of the workaday rush.
And so, on "VESUVIUS", the fledgling prophet's mantle is set aside for the recovery of that more familiar calling - artist & composer - and Sufjan Stevens slowly rouses himself through a kind of musical pep talk, one that also seems to have been conceived as a dirge for his own funeral. He's rather dragging his feet to the task that still lies ahead. Because any prophet or artist worth his salt knows that the expressed truth he aims for - prophetic, artistic, or otherwise - will effectively injure his own self before landing with any clarity or conviction in the ears and hearts of his listeners. And then, hopefully, the healing reply of vindication, redemption.
Sample lyric: "Why does it have to be so hard?"
The next two tracks, "ALL FOR MYSELF" and "I WANT TO BE WELL", close out the album's first long section (before the 25-minute suite that is "IMPOSSIBLE SOUL") and they also introduce a level of carnality and profanity not previously encountered in the Sufjan Stevens catalogue. The artist here is digging deep, into genuinely subconscious grounds as well as those intentionally obscured, and the results are appropriately discomfiting, upsetting and stirring. If, someday, someone, in the eggheaded spirit of this long album review, should undertake a book-length critical study entitled "Sufjan's Vision of Sin", these two tracks will be the early go-to texts. They signal the kind of wholly unexpected but then entirely coherent artistic development that harks back and links up to previous works while marking a decisive departure from and qualification of same.
So if that very lovely, lyrical yarn about predatory wasps and best boyhood friends from Illinois days was something like Sufjan's "We Two Boys Together Clinging", "ALL FOR MYSELF" here sounds like a dark thematic extraction from "Calamus", that cycle of poems wherein good gray Walt Whitman knits his brow and broods that "an athlete is enamoured of me - and I of him", but "toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst forth". Hairy chests replace youthful limbs wet from the swim, and the whole song is frankly orgasmic in conception and execution, all shuddering starts and stops and shifting rhythms before another ride on the cresting, crashing crescendos of the chorus proper.
("All For Myself": about as succinct and forthright a motto as any about the need, sometimes, to just get there. And, as with Whitman, it isn't entirely clear if the "there" of this sensual and ritualized camaraderie entails actual physical consummation, or some other kind of metaphysical transportation vivid and gripping enough to boggle and confuse the flesh into chaste credulity. For the always disciplined but constantly ravenous soul of the lifelong artist, fixedly attuned to the quality of rarefied experience, probably a prudent but potent mix of both, with an unmistakable tip toward the latter.)
As for the bouncy and manic and altogether traumatic "I WANT TO BE WELL", let us now think back for a moment to Michigan days, to the shimmering, reverent tones of "O GOD, WHERE ARE YOU NOW?", with Sufjan pondering the resurrection of the dead and earnestly wondering, "Would my body stay the same?" And so now, in this new song, thrashing madly against the living-nightmare effects of "the pill or demon / As my body changes", it really seems as good a time as any to break out the serious profanity, if only to let the oppressor know that this is one body that won't be going down without a fight.
This track speaks of irreparably altered hopes and dreams, terrible abuses and betrayals of trust, and the desperate, too-late realization that mind & body & heart & soul are of a single human piece, and that to lose or forfeit even one of these to theft or treachery is to somehow become bereft of it all, both temporarily and permanently, in differing ways.
Who's to say how far Sufjan Stevens has had to go to such places personally and actually? But as an artist and writer of songs, at the very least, this track demonstrates that Sufjan Stevens has arrived at a place where he is able to both explicitly and elliptically convey a more sprawling and visceral kind of human empathy than when he was crafting sensitive if shrewdly appointed narratives about desolate middle-aged citizens who drive busted-up snowmobiles and shop at the K-Mart. That particular difference, from this vantage point, seems like the difference between a gifted literary man and a real brotherly witness.
As far as track sequencing goes, this album is going to work really well on double LP, potentially an even more interactively emotional experience on turntable than on CD or MP3. Because after the rave-up and freak-out of "I WANT TO BE WELL", a moment's pause and quiet reflection would only serve to heighten the plangent gorgeousness of the opening minutes of "IMPOSSIBLE SOUL", the long and varied track that waits on the other side of the vinyl.
Opening with tentative, evenly paced keyboard tones, the song starts out like someone getting back up on shaky legs, taking deliberate but cautious steps toward recovered mobility. And while I've usually demurred from fawning critics' talk about Sufjan's "gorgeous vocals" and especially his "delicate falsetto", what Sufjan the singer does here in the opening section of "IMPOSSIBLE SOUL" is touched, I think, by something like technical and spiritual transcendence, word and performance pouring out together like the very marrow of a human soul. The only dramatic equivalent I can pull up, really, is Gena Rowlands in the movie A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, coming home to loved ones after the breakdown that saw her signed off to a long stay at the institution.
Open your heart and mind; lend even a little bit of your imagination, emotion and free-association to the opening minutes of this track (and to every minute that comes after, for that matter), and your experience and understanding of THE AGE OF ADZ might well be transformed for you right there. This is the sound of Love being calmly and confidently affirmed even in the passing of its accustomed realities, with the hard-earned knowledge that Love really is that one thing that can only be defended by an absolute lack of defenses.
And when that first distorted guitar/synth break kicks in, like an injured mecha robot trying hard to juice it for just one last mission, with an attendant chorus of sympathetic angels blessing the effort even as they gently relieve it of a wasting struggle, the whole thing doesn't just soar on a musical level, it also attains a kind of thematic resplendence that hovers and spreads out over the album's concept as a whole. It's not just the most beautifully realized moment of THE AGE OF ADZ but perhaps of Sufjan Stevens' entire oeuvre to date. And, really, for all that has gone before in this album, that's exactly how it should work: a real artistic coup in the want of other needful forms of justice, a rare-enough consolation against the failures of just plain old human decency.
The remaining twenty-some minutes of "IMPOSSIBLE SOUL" are largely successful, canny and affecting, and again, thematically coherent. But the theme and concept here is the life that indeed goes on after Love's practical passing, with resultant words and music that are appropriately randomized and restless. The Christian writer Oswald Chambers defines Love as "the outpouring of one personality in fellowship with another personality" (an explanation that might resound with particular profundity and poignancy only to those actually caught in the immediate thralls or throes of either finding or losing Love), and in the thematic absence and severance of such tender loving fellowship between human personalities joined in coupled mutuality, the latter sections of "IMPOSSIBLE SOUL" play out like an eclectic soundtrack to the far-flung wanderings of a modern solitary soul, subsisting on a largely indiscriminate diet of mass media information, pop culture reference, and an infinitely expanding catalogue of endlessly reproduced art and entertainment, all remotely accessed and never not available. Maybe that's stretching it a bit, but in more mundane terms, something like a newly single person passively working through self-intuited psychotherapy while clicking through the 5,000 channels of digital satellite television.
And so even after the assaultive optimism of a hyped-up and truly infectious group dance number (industrious amateurs the internet over are currently editing down the perfect five-minute track for their next humanist masterpiece of mass cooperation and collective giddiness), the sinister carnival synths and haunted house strings kick in and take over, and, at the risk of too much outrageousness, the slowed-down vocal track here may or may not be that large man beckoning from the doorway, standing there in his clown suit, insisting, "Boy, we can do much more together..." Those are the bad places the mind goes, maybe, when it skips on sleep and opts for stupefaction, absorbing true-crime TV in the middle of the night. The whole thing runs close to ending with a droning in the ears - like the sound of a depleted human conscience that has, indeed, allowed itself to be distracted.
The epilogue tune cuts in right at the end, and it's a very pretty composition, though pointedly chilly in performance and with lyrics that potentially upset and reverse whole sections of that which came before. Are these words and sentiments being presented detachedly, as Exhibit A extractions from a "Dear Sufjan" letter? Or is the songwriter here faking some kind of unthinkable Borgesian narrative trick, he himself having been the primary scoundrel and heartbreaker all along? Flip-flopping gender nouns will be keeping fangirls and fanboys squirrelly and guessing for some time yet.
Man or woman, boy or girl, friend or lover. And in any case, this closing performance projects hard and cold on the memory of that one someone who went out leaving the impression of a Sphinx - a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun - and the artist here, now truly older in many ways, elects to bow out, at the end of this long commission, emulating same.
Hats and caps off, kids. Sufjan Stevens has really done it, with what looks to have taken planet-sized determination and commitment, returning with what might be, as a unified work of singular personal vision, a career-best to date.
I didn't even consider how the Royal Robertson stuff might tie in with all this, and don't really plan to any time soon (aren't you glad and relieved?), but it's pretty obvious that this album has been much more than a "love & theft" kind of deal. Concept or no concept, the premise and proposal are plain: Sometimes you just have to make it personal, make it inevitable, no regrets, no looking back. And no matter what else, whatever sights & whatever sounds: Keep your heart & soul with you, all the way through, even after the end, dear Special Friend.
And did I really have to go and post this entire ordeal here, taxing everyone's browser space, just inviting internet ire? As an oversized counterpoint to some pretty curt dismissals also to be found around these here parts, yes. For the ephemeral enjoyment of mouse-scrolling over a five-star rating, also yes. And now, at the end, again yes, for the more substantial pleasure of concluding this honestly unforeseen writing, getting this truly uncanny record out of my system for a while, and to reiterate once more: Five Stars, Sufjan Stevens. Five Stars, and for an album like this, hitting a lot of us upside the heart and head, getting some of us back up on quicker, more nimble feet, for delivering it on this side of the new decade, Five Big Stars and the Moon as well.
Be well, musical friends!