Sufjan Stevens has been nowhere to be found for the past five years. After releasing the instant classic that was Illinois in 2005, fans and critics alike were left giddily awaiting the next release in his proposed 50 States Project. Unfortunately for all, this wasn’t to be. Instead, Stevens seemed to be questioning the point of releasing music at all in several interviews last year. As fans began to sheepishly hang their heads and give up on Sufjan altogether, he released a free EP online two months ago, and now follows it up with a full-length album, The Age Of Adz, in which he deconstructs himself mentally and spiritually through the use of familiar devices such as trumpets, flutes, synth pads and drum machines. The result is nothing short of brilliant.
The album begins with the hauntingly sleepy “Futile Devices.” Sparse instrumentation consisting of guitar, piano, rim taps and dubbed vocals create a tender, heartfelt meekness that doesn’t stray far from old favorites such as “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” While this is more comfort than surprise, it would be wise for listeners not to be fooled into thinking they’ve heard this album before.
What follows is the nearly seven-minute opus, “Too Much.” Any questions as to the legitimacy of an electro-pop album by the enigmatic singer-songwriter are quickly answered. Heavy on drum machines and synth effects, the song mixes Steven’s notoriously introspective lyrics with a new canvas on which to explore. What really separates the amalgamation of sound is the incorporation of horns, woodwinds and layers upon layers of gorgeously placed harmonies throughout. Towards the end of the track, the action begins to dissipate, lulling the listener to relaxation, only to transition into a spacey jam that reminds me of watching Star Wars and seeing the Death Star. It only gets bigger in scope.
The title track of the album follows, clocking in at eight minutes on the dot. Much of the same instrumentation is used, though focusing more on the side of classic Sufjan orchestration. The religious undertones are on full display and his lyrics have never been more affecting as he sings, “Well I have known you for just a little while / But I feel I’ve known you / I feel I’ve seen you when the Earth was split in fives.”
“I Walked” and “I Want To Be Well” serve as spiritual healing for Stevens. The former discusses the hardships of letting go of the one you love (a popular theme for every songwriter, I know), while the latter, as the title suggests, pleads for some peace. In it, Stevens and company sing, “Everywhere you look / everywhere you turn / illness is watching / waiting its turn.” The track ends in dramatic fashion as seemingly everyone capable repeats “I want to be well!” while the music crescendos then crashes.
The album closes with what might appear to be a farce, if not for the 10 tracks preceding that solidified its unshakeable credibility. “Impossible Souls” checks in at 25+ minutes, somehow managing to keep the listener engaged and excited for what is to follow. The first act floats peacefully after the intensity of “I Want To Be Well,” reminiscent of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips. After a slightly misguided stab at auto-tune, the most dance-inducing moment of Adz takes form in what is also its most hopeful moment. Once again, everyone is gathered to sing gleefully, “Boy, we can do much more together / It’s not so impossible!” If you don’t feel extremely happy to be alive when this moment arrives, it’s most likely you will never be happy ever. Finally, the marathon ends as it starts, as sparing guitar intertwines effortlessly with layers of Steven’s voice. The contemplation of life is discussed, but clearly not resolved.
The Age Of Adz is quite possibly Sufjan Steven’s most inviting and engaging album to date. What is more remarkable than anything about this truly majestic album is the undeniable flow throughout. This is obviously no easy feat for a record that totals over 70 minutes. Sufjan Stevens has proven over his last few albums that when he wants to, he can create more gorgeously written, performed and produced records than most his peers. There is no doubt in my mind that The Age Of Adz is the album of the year, and fans and critics alike will once again be keeping a close eye on the genius of Sufjan Stevens to come. Let’s hope this doesn’t push him away. We can’t afford to lose such a unique, inspiring and God-gifted artist.