People will say Sufjan Stevens has changed his style for this outing, his “electronic” album, but anyone who really listens will know and feel that this is just natural progression for his sound. Back when Sufjan Stevens was just another name in the indie soup he released his electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit and it was only a matter of time until he revisited that side of his talent. Fear not , however, The Age of Adz relies just as heavily on the organic side of Sufjan we’ve come to know and love.
In fact the first track on this album, “Futile Devices” is as natural as they come; a piano and guitar ballad that welcomes the listener with typical warm Stevens-esque charm. It’s from the deep, digital gurgling that announces the second track “Too Much” that things take a turn in an unexpected direction. From here on out Sufjan guides the listener ably through the album over a landscape of drum machines, cold synthesizers and efficiently mechanical and weird sound effects. However, these only form the basic structure of each song; there is so much else going on all the time that you’re undoubtedly going to forget that you’re listening to an “electronic” album. Waves of strings wash over the harsh electronics, choruses of heavenly voices make themselves known at the most operatic of moments, grandiose horn sections add regal pomp, the list of instruments goes on and amidst it all is Stevens himself sounding as emotional and engaging as ever.
Although by just looking at the ingredients of the songs it may sound like a recipe for disaster; the orchestral hand fits so beautifully into the electronic glove in a way that is so idiosyncratically Sufjan Stevens; although he may not have combined these two sounds before it seems so natural for him to have done so. In fact, when “Now That I’m Older” comes on, a delicate song that leaves the electronics aside in favour of harps, it seems unexciting amidst the incredible collisions of sound going on either side of it.
With the talent that Stevens has, the arrangements are one and all memorable; each new crescendo brings a new level of emotion and excitement and the addition of crunchier digital percussion underpinning it all makes them hit even harder than ever before. On the most gigantic of moments such as the immense chorus of “Age of Adz” or the apocalyptic swell amidst the intense chanting of “Vesuvius” it is not so difficult to picture Stevens conducting a huge orchestra, brass section and choir simultaneously all from behind the command centre of his laptop.
The Age of Adz is a colossal album and such an album can only end in one way; with the most monumental song of them all. This comes in the form of “Impossible Soul;” the song that may make or break the album for some listeners. At 25 minutes it is a new feat even for Stevens and one that he tackles in varying degrees of success. The song is an amalgamation of all the ideas he’s had for this album in one place, pieced together in “movements” of sorts. The majority of these “movements” are possibly the most beautiful parts of the album, but there are certainly others whose inclusion is questionable. The most obvious of these is ten minutes into the song when it appears to have reached its natural conclusion; there is a soft resurgence and Sufjan makes himself known again, but this time his voice is autotuned awkwardly. Stevens is not the first traditionally folk musician to use autotune – Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon used it admirably on the track “Woods” – but the jury is still out on Sufjan’s use here. The next movement is an upbeat and motivational electronic breakdown that whilst being a lot of fun, is far too long for a song that’s already bloated. The song and album may have benefited from this part being shortened or excised completely (to be used as a separate song). Although “Impossible Soul” undoubtedly succeeds in being an epic proclamation of love, it is way over the top. Today even the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s odes are abbreviated for modern performances and similarly “Impossible Soul” could have achieved just as much in fifteen minutes. The song is saved somewhat by the final movement, three minutes of little more than Sufjan and a guitar, delivering the most potent description of his love; almost the antithesis of the majority of the album but somehow the perfect ending.
If you’re a fan of Sufjan Stevens by now you’ve heard The Age of Adz or at the very least heard about it. Words such as “experimental,” “bloated” and “different” will be thrown around, but the truth is that despite the new angle The Age of Adz does nothing but solidify Stevens’ position as indie rock’s most beloved and foremost purveyor of orchestral chamber-pop. Over time The Age of Adz will find just as many people to cherish it and hold it in as high regard as any of his previous work in his astounding catalogue.