The new album by the "coolest musician in America" (Sunday Times) starts off by flattering to deceive. "Futile Devices" the opening track to Sufjan Stevens new set of songs could have happily appeared on the outstanding "Seven Swans" and is a gentle bubbling track with a fragile folksy beauty which Stevens can appear to evoke with consummate ease. So then Stevens is clearly going to compensate for his abandonment of his 50 state album cycle promise with a return to earlier glories?
No such chance, indeed while the ""he Age of Adz" has many transcendent moments, this is primarily an album of electronic soundscapes, whose trajectory can be loosely traced back in Stevens musical past to 2002's largely electronic Chinese Zodiac concept album "Enjoy your Rabbit". It is therefore not surprising that the critical reception to this album thus far has been in places bemused and quizzical (and in Uncut's case characterised by outright hostility questioning whether our hero is "a genius or just a show off").
The line between originality and over indulgence is of course a thin one but in Stevens case his ability to make his music soar is the special ingredient. For example the second track "Too much" is Sufjan Stevens meets Yeasayer and a joyous electronic concoction. The funky electronica of "I walked" revolves around a trip hop big synth loop, combined with Stevens trademark angelic vocals and surreal lyrics where he asks "Lover, will you look from me now/I'm already dead/but I've come to explain/why I left such a mess on the floor". Other highlights also include the gently rolling 'Vesuvius' which concentrates on giving self advice and messages to himself plus "Bad communication" a short beautiful fragment of a song. The title track is alternatively; erm what's the word I'm looking for, yes thats it ....mental! A tribute of sorts to the weird abstract art of Louisiana based Royal Robertson it starts off with great Wagnerian voices then Stevens singing through cat calls and symphonic whistles over an eight minute hodgepodge powerhouse that has to heard to be believed not least the lovely acoustic end.
And then we have the final track the 25 minute (I kid you not!) "The Impossible Soul" which is a mini album in its own right and a sort of Tubular Bells for the Twitter Generation which wanders far and wide. It starts conventionally and then leads into a strange exhortation where Stevens cheekily pleads with us "Don't be distracted", has a lovely vocoder section, at 13 minutes sounds like Kraftwerk for 30 seconds and then has one of those "Illinois" style chants for a further 8 minutes around the refrain of "boy we can do much more together" underpinned by all sort of beeps, electronic synths and weird machinations. It finishes with a fairly straightforward but gorgeous Stevens song with the "boy" lyrical refrain back again. Oh look, listen to it yourself and begin to connect with a song which has sections which will variously bore you, amaze you and often leave you in tears.
The "Age of Adz" is album devoid of discipline, restraint or brevity. It is a smorgasbord of ideas some of which work brilliantly, others fail gallantly and a few never get out of the starting gate. Certainly this a very different proposition to the mix of orchestrated packed bravado combined with the wintry acoustics of "Michigan" and "Illinois". Yet if the masterful experimentation of both those albums left you gasping for more "The Age of Adz" should hold no fear for you for this is pop or rock music in its loosest sense. Last year Stevens wrote a Stravinsky inspired album dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and only two months ago he released an EP entitled "All you delighted people" which extended to well over an hour. Stevens is a composer packed with musical ideas some great, some claptrap, some challenging and some sublime. What is the truth is that there no one else out there working this distinctive seam in this manner. Thereby "The Age of Adz" is full testimony to Stevens uniqueness and it should be a cause of great celebration and rejoicing for this is not so much an album release as a musical event.
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