Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Age of Adz’ (Asthmatic Kitty)
With an overstuffed body of work that includes an orchestral meditation on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a self-incriminating song about John Wayne Gacy, and two albums from a proposed set of 50 dedicated to each of the United States, Sufjan Stevens is not a man whose artistic audacity comes as a surprise. And yet there’s really no other way to say it: Throughout The Age of Adz–Stevens’ first full-length collection of new tunes since his 2005 breakthrough Illinoise–this cuddly indie star is on some whole other shit.
A mostly electronic affair longer on beats than on banjos, Adz arrives free of any narrative superstructure (excepting allusions to outsider artist Royal Robertson) and eschews much of what has won Stevens his devoted fan base–delicate acoustic fingerpicking, tidy song structures, colorful characters plucked from dusty pre-Wikipedia reference books. “I’m not fucking around,” the singer yelpsover a hammering dance-punk groove in “I Want to Be Well,” and on an album as unexpectedly headstrong as this one, that much seems true.
Or at least it does when Stevens isn’t busy fucking around: The Age of Adz (which apparently rhymes with “odds”) unspools over a significantly greater amount of time–75 minutes–than the material warrants; and there’s no shortage of aimless digital noodling on cuts like “Get Real Get Right” and “Impossible Soul,” the latter of which inexplicably bloops along for nearly a half hour. Stevens sated his jam-band jones in a borderline amusing way on August’s All Delighted People EP, but here all the engine-revving too often feels lazy, especially considering how vibrantly he embraces the album’s fresh musical direction elsewhere.
After a quickie fireside fake-out (“Futile Devices”), “Too Much” introduces the Adz aesthetic with the sound of a drum machine sputtering to life, as though we’re witnessing Stevens’ transition from guitar-strumming folkie to future-shock funkster; soon, he’s crooning coolly amid the slinky electro-soul sonics, even pulling off some Princely oohs and aahs. The Purple One’s unlikely influence crops up again in “I Walked,” which begins as a near replica of “Little Red Corvette”–several worlds removed from Stevens’ other computer-based album, 2001’s juiceless Enjoy Your Rabbit.
In “Now That I’m Older” Stevens conjures a cloud of close harmonies–think recent Dirty Projectors or Medúlla-era Björk–and the effect physicalizes a dreamy lyric about reconciling different versions of oneself. That theme arises later in “Vesuvius,” one of the album’s prettiest cuts, where Stevens goes third-person (“Sufjan / Follow your heart / Follow the flame / Or fall on the floor”) as a Celtic flute tangles with what sounds like a dying synth. Before “Impossible Soul” goes off the rails around the 13-minute mark, it presents a similarly arresting juxtaposition: Stevens’ absurdly pure choirboy voice fed through Auto-Tune’s crude man-machine filter.
As Bon Iver (and Kanye West) fans know, Justin Vernon actually captured that frisson first with his 2009 robot-folk fantasia “Woods.” Yet Stevens gets something creepier–and perhaps a little sadder–out of the contrast. “Stupid man in the window,” he sings, “I couldn’t be at rest.” It’s one of the more oblique passages on The Age of Adz, but the music makes you feel like you know where Stevens is coming from: out of the light and into the darkness.