The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens

2010

Asthmatic Kitty

Released in the latter half of 2010, Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz showed a fallible human side to the revered indie musician.  That isn’t to mean that this album, Stevens’ first song-based one since 2005’s Illinois, is an erroneous failure — in fact, it’s just the opposite.  For quite possibly the first time in his musical career, Sufjan created an album, a work of art, openly showing an inner state of emotions.  And this state is a fractured one, apparent almost immediately.

Stevens’ music has always had a progressive evolution, even with its eclecticism.  He’s had Christmas songs, a collaborative EP (released this year under the pseudonym s / s / s), Baroque imbued albums about two of the fifty states, and even an orchestral work thematically linked to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  However, underneath it all are Stevens’ folkier roots.  In essence, Sufjan has always been a folk songwriter.

With this, The Age of Adz begins to show the motif of fragmentation.  The songs on the album could’ve easily been reworked as simple guitar-picking tunes, with Sufjan crooning softly.  And, as a red herring, that’s how the album begins.  The stark “Futile Devices” opens the album with the Sufjan that we’ve come to expect: soft, tender, and comforting.  However, before too long, even this acoustic number begins to open up into the enigmatic intimacy of the rest of the album.  As Stevens sings “and words are futile devices,” we get a sense that the singer-songwriter has been hiding behind his lyrics and music, up until now.  He’s had concept albums about Michigan, Christianity, and the Chinese Zodiac, but never has he expanded inwards.

With the lead single “Too Much” as the next track, the listener is greeted with what can be expected from every other song — synths, electronic beats, danceable bass lines, digital white noise.  Indeed a plethora of robotic glitches can be heard, but that’s just the start.  Although he’s eschewed banjos, he’s kept the violins, horns, trumpets, flutes, and back-up girl harmonies from his previous albums.  This time around though, he’s incorporated all of these sounds into a chaotic masterpiece, a layered cacophony of human qualities, instead of neat little packages of folk-songs.  Just listen to the title track to get the idea; after an electronic count-in, the music swells to epic proportions with flute trills, triggered drums, and a kind of vocal chanting.  There are so many music ideas vying for attention.  And yet, in keeping with the fractured theme, even with all the electronic freak-funk apparent, the songs all are encapsulated in the folk ideal of simple chord changes.

If you didn’t catch it before, I alluded to the idea that The Age of Adz is a very human album.  Instead of the electronic noises hiding the uncertainties, the secrets, the longings, the narcissistic qualities apparent, they redeem them and breathe life into these ideas.  By adding the chaotic randomness to the songs, Sufjan contrasts the deeper emotional turmoil perceptible in the lyrics and his soulful voice in a way that brings it out even more.  This idea could not be more-perfectly epitomized than in the third part of the five-part suite “Impossible Soul;” through the robotic hip-hop tool of an Auto-tuner, Sufjan sings “Stupid man in the window / I couldn’t be at rest,” and the result could not be more discernible.

On The Age of Adz, Sufjan compares himself to the volcanic Vesuvius, and the metaphor is not lost — the album sounds like emotional turmoil, ready to erupt and demolish all that surrounds it.  Much like the haphazardly held together songs, Sufjan sounds to be in a fragile state, even singing “For you have destroyed with the elegant smoke / Oracle, I’ve fallen at last.”  It’s a huge change for the soft-spoken, story-driven, religious symbol-spewing indie songwriter that we know, and he breaks down these restrictions not with quiet whispers, but with wails of “I’m not fucking around / I’m not” repeated during the cathartic “I Want to Be Well.”

“Not fucking around” means “giant angel wings.” OBVIOUSLY.

Towards the end of the 25-minute long closer “Impossible Soul,” he changes between “Boy, we can do much more together / It’s not so impossible” and “Boy, we made such a mess together,” finally reverting back to delicate finger-picking, and one realizes The Age of Adz is an endearing confession, wrapped up in human sentiments.  These emotions and desires are let out over the course of the album, and the tumultuous guitar solo distorted over piano, in the same song, allowing Sufjan a purgative release accomplishes this.  Reality may be distorted and the eloquence may be overly passionate, but Sufjan’s giving us all he’s got.

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One Response to “The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    That pic of him with wings is so goddamn metal. \m/

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