ALBUM OF THE MONTH: Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension
This article is long to be consistent with its subject matter.
It's almost expected now that the world gets a new Sufjan Stevens solo studio album every five years. After the relentless creative output of Stevens' early career, releasing five albums in seven years, a pattern has emerged in the discography of one of America's greatest living songwriters following 2005's Illinois. From Age of Adz in 2010 to Carrie & Lowell in 2015, the five year gaps between Illinois onwards have made way for one of the most impressive collections of songwriting in recent music history.
So, five years on from the release of the harrowingly intimate Carrie & Lowell, it shouldn't be surprising that Stevens' The Ascension is another project of immense scope and songwriting design, well worth the wait that preceded it.
It has been easy for certain reviewers to see Sufjan Stevens' return to electronica as a direct continuation of 2010's Age of Adz, with the intimate singer/songwriter atmospherics of Carrie & Lowell more or less left behind. In truth, however, The Ascension acts far more like a synthesis of the two albums that came before it. In its fusion of abrasiveness and impossibly endearing melodies, this album is both incredibly provoking in its experimentation and utterly captivating in its vocal sensitivity. It is an excellent project, and I am sure it will be considered among the best electronic projects of the year, if not one of the better albums to come from 2020 altogether.
Opener 'Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse' proves an incredible place to begin. Crossing together moments of euphoric instrumental releases and softly immediate vocal lines, the construction of the track's speaker-destroying low end is amazing. This tune pulsates and, as the first song lands into the change-up at [4:20], it becomes immediately clear that The Ascension is determined to explore a wide variety of sounds and structures. This is a project that pushes Stevens as an artist while also putting to paper a remarkable breadth of lyrical interests.
Hearing the poetry of
"And I will bring you life
A new communion
With a paradise that brings
The truth of light within -
And I will show you rapture
A new horizon"
on 'Run Away With Me' reaffirms the interconnectedness of religious imagery and love in the worlds that Sufjan Stevens has created through years of astonishing lyricism. Meanwhile, expressing "I don't want to be your personal Jesus" on 'Video Game' proves a meaningful insight into this reserved artist's discomfort in his role as a 'celebrity'. Despite the fact that I do find 'Video Game' one of the weaker moments on the tracklist, it remains a song that ties this colossal project together thanks to its unapologetically direct lyricism.
Speaking of "colossal", now is probably a good time to mention that The Ascension is long. After our criticism of The 1975's lengthy Notes On A Conditional Form this year, it might seem hypocritical that we don't feel the same about this Sufjan Stevens album (with both clocking in at 1 hour, 20 minutes long). Where Notes felt bloated, however, The Ascension feels expansive. This is a wide-ranging universe of constantly shifting textures and sounds, always putting forward new ideas complimented by an artist with a famously introspective and compelling lyrical style. In short, the length of this album feels justified, and I say that as a listener who has only managed to get through The Ascension in a single sitting once. Every other time I enjoyed it in several listens separated into chunks, like reading a weekend novella.
Fourth and fifth tracks 'Lamentations' and 'Tell Me You Love Me' prove a perfect example of why this record remains so compelling through its length. While the first builds itself out of an angular and processed loop of beats, the latter emerges as a wistful love song amidst soft electronic piano strokes. In spite of the markedly distinct sonic palettes each of these tracks explores, both feel unified in Stevens' gorgeous delivery.
'Die Happy' starts slow, almost C418 in sound as the tune builds into an utterly fantastic second act of electronic scale. Admittedly, the opening half of this six minute song might be pushing it with how long it takes to get to its destination, but it is ultimately impossible for me to deny how enjoyable the musical shifts at [3:14] and especially [5:06] are.
Despite hating the crudeness of the line "I shit my pants and wet the bed" on 'Ativan', both it and 'Ursa Major' are wonderful additions to the album. The amount of surprising twists and change-ups littered throughout The Ascension proves constantly impressive, and that continues right through the rattling textures and soaring melodies of 'Landslide', complete with one of my favourite guitar solos of the year.
The track then dissipates into 'Gilgamesh', which unfortunately stands out as one of the few additions I care little for on the album. While its presence in The Ascension feels justified, it remains an unexciting instrumental tune which, at least during my listens, suffered from the incredibly painful way in which its high frequencies were mixed. In a similar vein to my issues with 'Gilgamesh', I found the third quarter or so of this project's track list to be considerably less interesting than the rest of The Ascension, although these songs' spots within the record do, nevertheless, feel earned.
Luckily, as we arrive at the album's closing moments, the forgettable 'Death Star', 'Goodbye To All That' and the over-long 'Sugar' make way for two songs of astonishing quality. The album's title track 'The Ascension', is genius, a brilliant amalgamation of Sufjan Stevens' career of wide ranging sonic interests. Floating above a fusion of staccato synthesisers and a cloud of echo-soaked piano chords, in many ways this track may be looked at as a relatively succinct metaphor for the design of the album itself, splicing together the processed sounds of Age of Adz and the impossible authenticity of Carrie & Lowell.
'America', in all of its 12 and a half minute glory, is the perfect ending to the sprawling inventiveness of The Ascension. The experimentation is there, but so expertly weaved into the track that it felt like an entirely natural extension of Sufjan's songwriting. The subtlety of its instrumentation and the song's use of electronic sounds are a wonderful end to an excellent album. Then, as the track comes to its close, there is something special buried in its soft, choir-like synthesisers, almost as if they were gently inviting the listener jump straight back into 'Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse'.
In the five years following the emotional distress of bringing Carrie & Lowell to life, Sufjan Stevens' return fits snugly into his wider discography while, at the same time, illustrating an exceptional shift in style. This is not Age of Adz II, this is The Ascension: an album that lifts Stevens up as an artist and provides fans with new, moving messages to enjoy and explore - that is, until he does it all over again.
- 8.5 -
'Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse', 'Landslide', 'America'
Carrie and Lowell ranked 33rd on Slow Motion Panic Masters' Top 100 Albums of the 2010s. Read the list here.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
This article was edited by Ainhoa Santos Goikoetxea (pronounced "I-know-ah"), a culturally confused graduate English student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
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