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Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Sufjan Stevens: "The Age of Adz"

In 2009, Sufjan Stevens contributed a song called "You Are the Blood" to the excellent compilation album, Dark Was the Night.  At the time it was released, it was one of the first original Sufjan pieces I'd heard in years, and at 10 minutes, it seemed to signal a change in the style of music the artist was interested in creating.  It was not only the song's length that gave it away, but also the heavy emphasis on electronic instrumentation.  While the more dedicated fans out there know that electronic music is nothing new to Stevens, he had yet to really combine it with his more orchestral pieces in the way that he did in that song.  I, for one, found it to be refreshing take on his usual schtick which, like it or not, just wouldn't have been as enchanting now as it was in 2005 (if only for the fact that we've all been listening to it for five years).  With The Age of Adz, Sufjan continues to evolve his sound in a similar manner to "You Are the Blood," with almost-perfect results!

The album begins with "Futile Devices," a beautifully soft acoustic song that serves more as a palette cleanser than as a track indicative of the whole of Adz.  Sufjan's billowy vocals float lightly over his delicate guitar-picking, putting the listener at ease and giving us the chance to enjoy the wonderfully-written lyrics.  It ends abruptly, if not beautifully, running head on into the glitchy percussion of "Too Much."  This song is the real primer for  The Age of Adz.  It adds synths and electronic percussion to great effect, but simultaneously retains what was always so great about Sufjan Stevens' music - namely, a brilliant composition, lively vocal arrangements, and music that is constantly engaging.  It literally sounds like a classic 50-states era song with some newly-introduced instruments.  It's easily one of the album's catchiest tracks, and the one on which most opinions will be hitched; positive or negative.

From here, Sufjan continues to trek into new territory.  Title track, "The Age of Adz" begins with a flood of horns and flutes that make it sound more like the soundtrack to an epic battle scene than a Sufjan Stevens song.  Unfortunately, a lot of that momentum is thrown out soon after and the song reveals itself to be a bit more ho-hum than it led on - like a sheep in wolf's clothing.  "The Age of Adz" reveals pretty plainly what the album's greatest flaw is, and that is Stevens' reoccurring difficulty to write a compelling vocal melody.  The same guy who was able to make a song about a serial killer into a oddly-catchy sing-along can barely assemble a strong string of notes on a few of the songs on Adz.  Granted, on tracks like "All For Myself" or "Bad Communication," he seems more focused on creating an atmosphere than a melody, but he does so at the expense of arguably one of his greatest talents as a songwriter.

"Get Real, Get Right" picks up where "Too Much" left off, blending upbeat glitch percussion and more traditional instrumentation with a strong hook.  Surprisingly strong, in fact, considering it features Sufjan and Co. singing "Do yourself a favor and get real, get right with the Lord."  Sufjan's never been one to shy away from his faith in music, but it's rarely been so plainly written and joyfully executed.  Whether it's done in jest or in earnest is debatable, but the brilliance of the song is not.  A person with a less open mind might be quick to judge then when Sufjan proudly declares just a few songs later that he's "not fucking around" - but I personally find it to be one of The Age of Adz's most-enjoyable moments!  The moment happens in the second half of "I Want to Be Well."  On first listen, I was caught off guard by the sheer brazenness of the language.  Sufjan has always been a very delicate writer.  However, by the time he's passionately shouting the line over a chorus of vocals singing "I want to be well," I'm right there with him, cheering him on!  This is not an emotion we are used to from this guy, and it is made all the more powerful as a result.

A lot will probably be said about the way that Sufjan decided to end The Age of Adz.  Any song that clocks in at over 25 minutes is certainly a sign of overindulgence, and "Impossible Soul" is certainly not an exception to this rule.  But to its credit, the song never tires, never bores - not once in its 25 minutes!  Plus, the song gives us a featured performance from Annie Clark, a dance section, and one of the most tragic endings to a song I've heard all year.  Is it unnecessary?  It's hard to say, really.  To be sure, his use of auto-tune in one section is questionable (and perhaps unintentionally funny).  But at the same time, the technology has definitely been used to worse ends in the last few years!  And let's not forget that "Impossible Soul" is perhaps more accurately viewed as the second half to a double album or an EP within an LP.  Even without its inclusion on Adz, the album is brilliant, however its place at the end of the album gives The Age of Adz a more touching ending and an increased depth.  There is a lot to take in here that many of listeners may not appreciate until after repeated listens.

Whether people end up hating or loving The Age of Adz, one can't really fault Sufjan for wanting to try his hand at self-reinvention.  In 2005, this guy was on top of the indie music world.  It would have been easy to milk that success with a few more albums about states in the same vein as his previous critically-acclaimed albums.  Instead, he retreated into pet projects and relative obscurity, all the while crafting an album that is bold, entirely unique, and unfailingly captivating!  The Age of Adz is refreshing in ways few albums have been since Illinois was released over half a decade(!) ago.  While it won't hold a candle to some of his past albums, The Age of Adz stands entirely on its own as a brilliant work of creative genius!  Sufjan is back, and thank god, he hasn't lost it!  Not even close.

Key Tracks:
1. "Futile Devices"
2. "Too Much"
3. "I Walked"
4. "Get Real Get Right"
5. "I Want to Be Well"

8 out of 10 Stars  

20 comments:

Jakc B. said...

Is that Annie Clark on that track? I thought it was too, when I first heard it, but others are saying it's Shara Worden, from My Brightest Diamond. I downloaded the album so I don't have the liner notes...

Cale said...

Haha...I read that it was Annie Clark, even though I first thought it was Shara Worden. I preordered the vinyl and got an MP3 download from the label. However, my LP hasn't come in yet, so I'm still waiting on confirmation.

My review originally said Shara Worden, but I changed it after reading the Pitchfork review I think. It sounds like it could be either one of them, but I originally went with Worden because she and Sufjan have a history.

The mystery continues...

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