Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2020]

In the five years between Sufjan Stevens’ heart-wrenching masterpiece Carrie & Lowell and now, we haven’t heard a lot from him. Sure, he’s kept busy – releasing a lengthy collaborative album about the solar system, writing a few original songs for the film Call Me By Your Name, and recently dropping a surprise instrumental album with his stepfather – but none of those projects gave us a deeper look at Sufjan himself. Since his rise in popularity in the early 2000s, the release of each proper Sufjan album has become a sacred occurrence for a lot of people. And now, with his eighth studio album The Ascension finally upon us, we are introduced to yet another new direction for the idiosyncratic artist. Gone are the layered character studies and deeply personal ruminations on childhood trauma and familial grief, now replaced by stark commentary on his faith and the vitriolic state of modern American culture. 

Sufjan hasn’t ever lingered on a particular sound for too long, and once again The Ascension takes a sharp turn from the hushed folk of Carrie & Lowell. The songs here are dense and cold, often forgoing any acoustic or live instrumentation for a modest set of synthesizers and digital percussion. The result feels more like a spiritual successor to his 2010 record The Age of Adz, but even on that album bright flutes, buzzing horns, and other live instruments periodically pierced through the harsh digital constructs. The primary issue with The Ascension is not that it lacks the sonic and instrumental variety we’ve come to expect from him over the last 15 years, rather, this approach isn’t as sustainable on a record so extensive. There are undoubtedly some breathtaking songs on The Ascension, but its weaker moments instill a nagging feeling that the 80-minute album tends to overstay its welcome. 

As a direct follow up to Carrie & Lowell, the initial listen to The Ascension feels like a firm slap in the face. Opening track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” kicks off with a ghostly wail and a skittering, mechanical beat that sets the tone of the record going forward. Whereas the music on Carrie & Lowell was haunting in a melancholic, almost-familiar way, the music on The Ascension is apocalyptic and astringent. Of course, Sufjan’s angelic voice still acts as the anchor to his music, even when it’s nearly lost amid cacophonous metallic soundscapes. His beaming vocals are a constant source of light in the swell of sonic dissonance.

Despite all this, there are moments of pure bliss scattered throughout The Ascension that act as welcome respite. “Run Away With Me” is a tender electronic ballad, where Sufjan’s feathery voice floats atop gentle percussive flourishes and swathes of atmospheric synthesizers, which finds him begging a lover to escape with him to avoid scrutinization from an unnamed perpetrator: “And I will show you rapture,” he offers, “A new horizon / Follow me to life and love within.” 

Religion has always been a common theme in Sufjan’s music, but it’s existed in the background, quietly coming in and out of focus as needed. The Ascension brings it front and center, and though he still leaves much up for interpretation, we finally get a clearer picture of Sufjan’s struggles to align his faith with his other moral values. He asks for forgiveness often, and you can feel his genuine state of conflict as he searches for reconciliation. In these moments of confusion, Sufjan relies on love to carry him through. “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything / Tell me you love me anyway,” he pleads on the rapturous “Tell Me You Love Me”. Sufjan juxtaposes love and lust with sobering religious symbolism, sometimes to such a fine degree that it’s difficult to determine whether he’s having a sensual encounter with a lover or literally pleading with God. 

With a lack of overall variety in sound, Sufjan locks into different modes throughout The Ascension to help alleviate a sense of stagnation. He toys with straight-up synth-pop on “Video Game”, only to immediately shift toward the experimental with “Lamentations” and “Ativan”. Eventually, though, The Ascension begins to feel redundant. Coming on the heels of one of the most compelling tracks, the epic “Landslide”, the following suite of “Gilgamesh”, “Death Star”, and “Goodbye To All That”, fail to stand out much musically – especially so late in the record. The worst offender of these is “Death Star”: a lifeless, repetitive track devoid of any discernible melody to latch onto. Considering the marathon length, the album could have done with a bit more editing to eliminate some of the less successful songs. 

The title track is the closest Sufjan comes to recreating the stripped-back, raw emotion found on Carrie & Lowell. With little more than echoing pianos and his delicate voice, he delivers the most potent song on the entire record – one that cuts deep into your soul. In its stirring final minutes, Sufjan comes face to face with his crisis of faith, and finally attains some amount of conviction. “But now it strengthens me to know the truth at last,” he proclaims, “That everything comes from consummation / And everything comes with consequence.” However, due to the resounding sense of resolution in “The Ascension”, the album’s closing track that follows it, the 12-minute “America”, is relegated to an afterthought. 

The Ascension is Sufjan at his most isolated – he has lost hope in nearly everything around him and desperately seeks a cure for a new identity crisis. The music does a good job reflecting his anxious frame of mind, but gradually wears thin over such a long run time. Likely to be divisive amongst his fans, The Ascension is at its best when Sufjan calls forth light in the darkness. He’s reached a point where viewing the world with bright-eyed optimism just isn’t feasible, yet he perseveres. “Now that it’s too late to have died a young man / Well I’m just glad that I’m still alive / For what hasn’t killed me will make me stronger,” he decides on “Goodbye To All That”. It’s a cliché sentiment, but sometimes that’s all one needs to muster the strength to keep going through the darkest moments.