It’s difficult to imagine what the inside of Sufjan Stevens’ mind looks like. A gifted multi-instrumentalist who mixes orchestras with electronica, Christian mythology with folk and twenty-minute songs with twenty-second ones, Stevens remains perhaps the biggest enigma in contemporary alternative music.
Ten studio records in, and it’s difficult to discern whether anyone has yet fully grasped Stevens’ musical intent. From the lilting folk of Seven Swans to the full blown electronica of The BQE, it may be that the Detroit-born songwriter himself has yet to pin down his sound. Yet in an era where repetition and copycatting are the styles du jour, with each new Sufjan Stevens album you get a refreshing, innovative blast of pure originality which helps not only to cleanse the palette of more forgettable fare, but also to open the eyes to the possibilities of music itself.
The Age Of Adz, somewhat unsurprisingly, is unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. Ostensibly an electronica album but containing elements of choral chamber music and orchestral symphonia, it carries all the hallmarks of a Sufjan record. Thus there are string instrument interludes in the middle of epic electronic soundscapes and folk finales to lengthy musical explorations. ‘Impossible Soul’, the album’s curtain call, is a perfect illustration of what makes this music so incredibly interesting, and what makes its creator so intriguing.
It’s a song that will stand out to anyone glancing down the album’s tracklist, clocking in at a pretty mammoth 25 minutes, but its duration is only part of its allure. As fans of Sufjan will already know, a song is more than a song to the man from Illinois, and when a concept is born in his mind, it’s seldom abandoned before it is fully investigated. Previous albums included songs bordering on 10 minutes, from ‘Chicago’ on Illinoise to ‘All Delighted People’ on the EP of same name, and ‘Impossible Soul’ takes its basis from these tracks. Beginning with a soulful solo piano and vocal, it quickly evolves into an almost jazzlike freeform – a slanting, atonal, electrified guitar solo cutting into proceedings – before it reverts back to its softer beginnings as a choral work. Then we pass through a wonderful choral section into a sparse movement containing horns, interjecting keyboards and echoey vocals.
At this stage, most songs have already a) run completely out of ideas and b) finished. However, we’re less than a fifth of the way through ‘Impossible Soul’.
It may sound a daunting proposition, but such is Stevens’ compositional skill that the track only rarely drags, each section beautifully woven into the next, until we get to the finishing post: a gorgeous folk section which eases us out of The Age of Adz. It’s an easy song to disregard, composed of bizarrely united parts like a musical Frankenstein’s Monster, but it’s imbued with more creative arrangements and ideological gumption than most albums. In this regard, it’s a song which perfectly compliments and relates to its composer – it’s a united series of disparate ideas, forged together to create a piece of brilliance unlike anything else. Organic, far-reaching, uneven, unusual – Stevens and ‘Impossible Soul’ are all these things and many more.
The real skill of Stevens has always been his ability to switch musical costumes as effortlessly as a card shark switches hearts for clubs, and in The Age of Adz he draws on every guise, creating a new one in the process. A series of incredible ideas merged by an incomparable talent, it’s certainly ambitious, and in some cases, this audacity gets rewarded. However, in others, it stumbles.
The BQE, with which you can draw clear comparisons, was an experimental album, and in places The Age of Adz feels like an extension of this same investigation with vocals inserted. For each moment of sheer brilliance, and there are many here to enjoy, there are also mis-steps and tracks which over-reach themselves. ‘Now That I’m Older’ begins with a wonderful choral arrangement, but gets submerged in electronic molasses, becoming bogged down and never really matching the complex intelligence of its opening. ‘Bad Communication’ feels like an interlude that lasts too long, and has no punch to speak of.
Of course, with each disappointment sure to be overwritten by a moment of genius, it’s hard to condemn even the baggier tracks on The Age of Adz, such are the gifts of their author and occasional wizardry in their execution. ‘I Want To Be Well’ gets into unknown territory for Stevens, finishing with a rebellious refrain – “I’m not fucking around” – and adopting a far angrier tone than we’ve come to expect from a man capable of such nuanced musical grace.
The Age of Adz is bound to divide opinion; some will say it’s a modern-day masterpiece, a virtuoso display of electronica and ambition, and some will say it’s nothing more than the pompous noodlings of a self-aggrandizing egotist. Neither of these assessments seem entirely true to me, but it’s impossible to give a comprehensive verdict on such a sprawling, unashamedly expressive record. Whether you deem it divine or drivel, The Age Of Adz is without question the most ambitious project of the year, and one which demands not just attention, but thought.
Sufjan Stevens is a man of many disguises, and he’s added another one to his audio wardrobe: he’s half-hero, half-villain. But no-one can agree on which half is which.
Best tracks: ‘Futile Devices’, ‘Too Much’, ‘I Want To Be Well’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: Unmap – Volcano Choir, High Violet – The National, The Crane Wife – The Decemberists.