When we last saw Sufjan Stevens before his five-year hiatus from recording new music, he was filling his compositions with as many unusual instruments as he could play, giving his songs droll, paragraph-long titles and boasting of his plan to record an album for every American state. He had the persona of a folk prodigy boy scout, modestly whisper-singing obsessive historical facts over immense baroque arrangements. And, apparently, he’s now decided that none of that is for him anymore.
Stevens’ long-awaited return LP “The Age of Adz” (that’s “odds,” FYI) is a self-conscious and startling step far away from his former M.O. Every song title takes less than five seconds to say. Any and all humor, let alone drollness, is pretty much gone. So is the fabled 50 States Project, so I guess we’ll never hear classics like “Missouri Loves Company” or “Iowa Great Album to My Fans.”
The most striking advancement is Stevens’ abandonment of the elaborate chamber pop instrumentation he had perfected. The glockenspiels and banjos have been traded for electronic loops, drum machines and enigmatic sound effects. There’s some clear influence from Brian Eno, Danger Mouse and Animal Collective here, and pretty good dose of Radiohead, since this ranks with “Kid A” as one of the most unexpected and successful conversions to electronic exploration.
What’s most impressive about “Adz” is, drastic as though changes may be, they feel mostly like surface details. This album is about the farthest things fans would expect from the man behind “Seven Swans” and “Illinois,” but it doesn’t really feel like a blatant attempt to defy expectations. Instead, it’s like Stevens has just taken a very different route in delivering another messy, wonderful opus. It’s uncommon for any artist, even some of the greatest, to dramatically revise their signature sound and still make it sound like a completely organic progression. “The Age of Adz” is such an album: this is an assured statement, not an experiment.
What’s in store here are some of the most extravagant songs Stevens has ever composed. The electro-epics like “I Walked” and “Get Real Get Right” are all impressive, mostly mind-blowing. There’s also quieter, more restrained interludes between the grandiosity, like the melancholic haze of “Now That I’m Older” and the soft-spoken, finger-picked opener “Futile Devices,” a very modest intro for what’s to come.
The lyrics throughout are as intensely personal as Stevens has ever been. “Now That I’m Older” is beautiful venting of existential worry, “I Walked” and “Bad Communication” are open-hearted breakup songs, and “Get Real Get Right” is such a great jumble that it’s easy to overlook that the song is a plea for stronger Christian faith. On “Michigan” and “Illinois,” Stevens found ways to sneak personal experiences into historical vignettes and obscure references or inside jokes — here, he’s putting himself first.
“The Age of Adz” and “I Want to be Well” are the most powerful tracks. They’re staggering combinations of Stevens’ new technologic fix and some of his more baroque tendencies (choirs, frantic orchestral fills) — it’s a majestically offbeat sound, but hey, majestically offbeat is one of his calling cards.
So is demanding sprawl, which comes out in full force with the finale, “Impossible Soul.” Coming in at 25 minutes (a third of the length of the entire album) and going through multiple, barely connected movements, it’s like an island apart from the rest of the songs. It’s also a bit of a disappointment. The long non-start, Autotune breakdown, the victorious chanting climax and the acoustic finale are good on their own, but they hardly gel as one solid composition, so the album ends with a fizzle more than an explosive finale.
“Impossible Soul” is a decent pastiche compared to the other songs on “The Age of Adz.” This is an album as powerful as it is mysterious — the first listen is jolting, the subsequent listens keep revealing more depth.
It was clear long before “The Age of Adz” that Sufjan Stevens is a complex artist of very expansive talent. This album is more excellent proof of that, but the most exciting thing about “Adz” is that, in the end, it seems Stevens’ talents were even more boundless than we figured.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.