The indie legend returns with a bloated, flawed, yet colorful and beautiful album that is well worth your time.
Originally published on 10/6/20.
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens is one of the most celebrated artists in indie music, and for good reason; with every album he has displayed his ability to radically change up his sound while remaining true to what has made him a pioneer in the genre. Some of his works are among the most acclaimed of the 21st century, widely loved for their creativity, lyricism, and emotional potency; he is decidedly one of a long list of great artists to come out of Detroit.
Stevens began his music career back in 1999 with his debut album A Sun Came. While not nearly as focused or consistent as his later releases, it nonetheless still stands as a fairly impressive harbinger for one of indie music’s most heralded discographies. 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit showcased a hard-left turn stylistically as Stevens explored the world of glitch and noise music; his lyricism improved along with his songwriting. However, it wouldn’t be until 2003, with the release of Michigan, that Stevens would truly start to come into his own and show just what he was capable of. A return to the folk-influenced sound that he is arguably best known for, Michigan saw Stevens’ musical abilities grow by leaps and bounds over just four short years as he delivered some of his best material to date. Meanwhile the stripped back Seven Swans, released just a year later, showed that Stevens didn’t need a grand presentation to make beautiful music. It became clear soon after that it certainly helped, though, as 2005’s masterful Illinois remains one of the quintessential indie records of the aughts. It would be five more years (and a Christmas album) before Stevens would return with The Age of Adz, a highly underappreciated record that saw him work his sound into an electronic format while retaining much of the live instrumentation he has utilized for most of his career.
At that point, one might not have been faulted for saying Stevens had done all he could, that he had exhausted his musical abilities. But in 2015, that potential argument was effectively nullified by the stunning Carrie & Lowell. Sixteen years and seven albums into his career, Stevens delivered his shortest, quietest, saddest, and arguably best musical statement yet. With little more than his voice and a guitar, volume of either rarely rising above that of a whisper, Stevens sang poetic, heartbreaking lyrics centered around the death of his estranged mother Carrie, who passed in 2012 from stomach cancer. Carrie’s death profoundly affected Stevens, sending him spiraling into a grief-stricken stupor; Carrie & Lowell serves as a gut-wrenching look into Stevens’ mental state at the time and the deep regrets he faced upon Carrie’s death. (Seriously, this thing contains some of the saddest songs ever.) The album is the epitome of the phrase “less is more”; by stripping away the instrumentation to only what was truly essential in reflecting his emotions at the time, Stevens created his most powerful work to date.
It thus comes as something of a surprise that Stevens’ new album The Ascension is different in nearly every way imaginable from Carrie & Lowell, the soft, depressing ballads rife with room tones gone entirely. (Good thing, too; I doubt the world could have handled another Carrie & Lowell, least of all Stevens himself.) If Enjoy Your Rabbit and The Age of Adz frequently flirted with electronic music, The Ascension is a full-blown marriage ceremony, serenaded by a giant Prophet ‘08 in lieu of an organ. Unlike those past two records, this new record contains virtually no live instruments at all, content with diving headfirst into the world of synthesized music and programmed beats. It’s also Stevens’ longest album to date, a fully packed 80 minutes. And for the most part, he makes those minutes count.
Instrumentally, Stevens allows his talent in the realm of electronica to shine through. The Ascension is rife with dense, detailed, creative musical backdrops, a wonderfully colorful world only bolstered by the aesthetically pleasing album cover. As with his previous albums, Stevens did most of the arranging and performing all by himself. While producing an electronic album is admittedly not quite as impressive as playing a laundry list of instruments, his work on The Ascension is nevertheless gorgeous, heavily layered, and – more often than not – excellent.
As strong as most of the instrumentals on The Ascension are, the best has to be on the song “Ativan.” The beat is built around a constant throbbing, bassy kick drum that never grows tiresome despite playing on loop for almost the whole song. The beat chugs along at a relatively quick pace as electronic clicks, panning percussion loops, and soft yet uneasy synthesizers create an atmosphere that perfectly captures the anxiety the titular prescription drug is meant to quell. (Naturally, Stevens’ lyrics only enhance said atmosphere.) As the track speeds along, the beat develops a prominent industrial grind that throws back to the classic sound the genre was originally built on – think Throbbing Gristle, but much less horrific. By the end, it has all devolved into a thick, gorgeous string section that allows “Ativan” to coast out to a close. All of this comes together to create one of The Ascension’s finest and most essential songs.
While Stevens’ lyricism is great for most of The Ascension, Stevens saves the best for last. The final two tracks “The Ascension” and “America” showcase his penchant for quality songwriting better than any other songs here. The former features almost no percussion at all, Stevens content instead to sing over a warm bed of keys and synthesizers. Over this minimal backdrop, he croons regretful lyrics about his younger self’s naivety and self-importance, specifically how “[he] thought [he] could change the world around [him].” As with many of his past songs, Stevens prominently references his Christian faith in this particular piece, beautifully incorporating it into its overall theme. (One especially memorable lyrical nugget: “To think I was acting like a believer / When I was just angry and depressed.”)
Meanwhile the twelve-and-a-half-minute closing track “America” serves as a silent protest song. Using a pretty yet dystopian instrumental, Stevens sings quietly about the current state of America, again seamlessly working his Christian beliefs into all of it. He manages to express his (fully justified) disillusionment and a struggle with his faith at the same time: “I have loved you, I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe / I have loved you, I received / I have traded my life for a picture of the scenery.” The song becomes even more powerful when you consider that much of Stevens’ past material has been centered around American culture, probably a form of the naivety he referenced in the previous song. It all ends with an extended instrumental coda, ambient synths washing over the listener (at one point it curdles, sounding like something Karlheinz Stockhausen might have made). “America” is a gorgeous, satisfying, and powerful ending that uses its lengthy runtime perfectly.
Sadly, the negatives on The Ascension are more prominent than they typically are on a Sufjan Stevens album, and serve to take away from the overall experience. For one, it’s simply too long. There’s not enough top-quality material here to justify filling up the runtime of a full CD. Some songs feel either underwritten (“Lamentations,” “Gilgamesh”) or overwritten (“Ursa Major,” “Landslide”); while there are lots of great ideas on these songs, they don’t come together as seamlessly as they should have. Definitely the biggest offender in this field is the one-two punch of “Death Star” and “Goodbye to All That.” Both of these songs contain the album’s clunkiest groove by a mile – the former segues into the latter in a manner similar to a medley – and they fail to create the holistic experience they were clearly meant to. It doesn’t help that Stevens’ vocal melodies aren’t very interesting and are almost completely swallowed in the former’s mix. Elsewhere, the hook on “Landslide” sounds too silly to fit with the rest of the song, and thus sticks out like a sore thumb; “Ursa Major” has a similar problem. And while “Sugar” is an otherwise outstanding track, it unfortunately takes almost three full minutes of instrumental meandering to get to the actual song.
For every weak moment here, though, there are three or four excellent ones. “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” ranks among the strongest opening tracks I’ve heard this year, perfectly setting the tone for The Ascension and boasting some of its most memorable vocal melodies. “Die Happy” is one of the album’s best songs; it spends more than half of its nearly six-minute runtime building up a gorgeous atmosphere before launching into a satisfying groove, Stevens repeating one simple phrase throughout: “I wanna die happy.” Elsewhere, “Video Game” is one of the catchiest songs Stevens has ever recorded, a wonderful synthpop anthem about being yourself and not succumbing to the desire to follow trends and do what everyone else is doing.
Overall, though flawed and bloated, The Ascension is nevertheless another impressive achievement from one of 21st century indie music’s most iconic artists. There is a plethora of amazingly executed musical ideas on this album (because of course there would be), and Stevens’ undeniable talent shines through once again. Some musical ideas here don’t work out, and I certainly would have shortened the album, but for the most part this is a strong body of work that is decidedly worth listening to. Just make sure you have 80 minutes to yourself first.
Listen to The Ascension on Apple Music or Spotify below.