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Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

If Illinois is to Sufjan Stevens what OK Computer is to Radiohead, then The Age of Adz is Sufjan's Kid A. There really is no more appropriate musical comparison, and if you're familiar with all of the above albums save Age of Adz, that's probably all the review you need of Sufjan's new release. There are slight stylistic differences, and Radiohead probably has and had a few orders of magnitude more fans, but otherwise, the parameters remain largely identical.

Radiohead followed an excellent album, The Bends, with a masterpiece that was an evolution in style, even if one that you probably wouldn't have predicted. OK Computer is one for the ages, an album that's complex and intricate without being overwrought, and as emotionally moving as it is musically influential. OK Computer was roundly lauded and loved, a huge success both critically and commercially. Then, as if keenly aware of the pressure on them for a follow up, Radiohead didn't follow up, choosing instead to veer off course, taking a ninety degree turn and putting out an album that was completely different stylistically, still Radiohead, but with barely a trace of the musical style that you previously would have identified with the band. And though it wasn't quite as good as OK Computer, it was still good, and the fact that a band could follow one masterpiece with a very good album in a completely different style made the critics go absolute apeshit over the band, trampling each other in a mad rush to worship at the altar of Radiohead.

Sufjan Stevens followed an excellent album, Michigan, with a masterpiece that was an evolution in style, Illinois. It's an album for the ages, with remarkably complex arrangements and instrumentation that still manages to remain folksy and accessible. It was lauded and loved, though this is where there's a remarkable difference in scale. Radiohead is a huge, multimillion selling, extremely influential and well known band. Sufjan Stevens is an indie darling, revered in those circles, but not apt to crack into Billboard's top 40. Regardless, Illinois was kind of a big deal, and Sufjan, no doubt feeling the pressure to follow it up, to make another touching folk album about one of the forty-eight remaining states, decided to take an abrupt turn into territories uncharted.

Thus, we have The Age of Adz.

Not that this was a completely unpredictable move. I believe Kid A might have been similarly predictable, were you waist-deep in all of the B-sides and concert bootlegs floating around on the wild, untamed musical ocean that was Napster at the time. Radiohead comparison aside, if you purchased the Dark Was the Night anthology, which featured the Sufjan track You Are the Blood, you had some idea what was coming. If you purchased the side-project The BQE, you own an instrumental sort of dress rehearsal for this album. It's still kind of surprising to see Sufjan release a full album that bears almost no resemblance to his last one. Eclectic side projects aside, this is his new style. Really.

There's an interesting sort of symmetry to the album, in that the opener, Futile Devices, and the last minutes of the mammoth closer, Impossible Soul, are the only tracks that could be considered an evolution of the style present in Illinois. Both are different than what's on that album, but they're not completely unfathomable as Sufjan songs. They do, after all, have guitar, and largely acoustic instrumentation, and finger picking, and soft singing, and personal lyrics. In between the two, however, all else is different. I could easily be missing it, as the instrumentation remains typically complex, but I hear no guitar between these two bookends, and I hear none of Sufjan's trademark banjo on the album at all. Like Radiohead, he's replaced an acoustic drum kit with an electric one, a bass with a neck and body with one that rumbles and pings down low in a fashion unnatural for traditional instruments. His vocals are electronically modified at parts, and there are synthesizer chords and hard to place noises in the high end. His lyrics are less intimate, personal folk songs, and are more some mix of intimate, personal modern songs and dance-like repeated choruses.

For all that's different, though, much is the same. Sufjan still employs a one-man folk orchestra, playing flutes and trumpets and strings and virtually anything else he can get his hand on. There are layered vocals, male and female, and there is complex arrangement and interweaving melody lines. But the name dropping and historical parallels have been replaced with oft-repeated phrases, the tales of childhood love exchanged in favor of introspective torment. Where we had, "Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged / I can tell you I love him each day", we now have, "I want to be well / I'm not fucking around". Where the album art (particularly for the Illinois victory lap, The Avalanche) was cartoonishly bright and stylized, the face of Adz is almost (or at least in comparison) menacing. Where we used to have one or two minute instrumental segues, we now have, well, nothing.

Not that this is bad. But it is different. After the deceptive introduction that is Futile Devices, Too Much makes that abundantly clear to the listener, the synthesized drums, and bass, and chords pushing the core of the song. But it's still a fairly bright, peppy song that one can liken in some regard to the Sufjan of Illinois. The title track, The Age of Adz, begins our descent into darker territory, the instrumentation creating a sort of booming, menacing pulse as Sufjan sings, "When it dies, when it dies, it'll rot / But when it lives, when it lives, it'll give it all it's got". No, it's not hopeless despair, by any means, but neither is it sunshine and butterflies. Vesuvius, one of my favorite tracks on the album, provides a respite from the darker, more driving songs. At least musically, anyway. The instrumentation is quiet, all airy flutes and carefully played trumpets, the vocals a choir of whispers, the electronics soft and glitchy, It's almost enough to keep you from hearing the inner turmoil and torture that's present in the self directed lyrics, "Sufjan, follow the path / It leads to an article of imminent death / Sufjan, follow your heart / Follow the flame / Or fall on the floor / Sufjan, the panic inside / The murdering ghost / That you cannot ignore". If his conflict wasn't driven home by that, he ends with a repetition of, "Why does it have to be so hard? / Follow me now / Or follow me down".

Apparently the five years between Illinois and The Age of Adz have not been filled with the sort of contented happiness that one might have thought the success of Illinois would bring. All of the turmoil really comes to a head in the second last track on the album, I Want to Be Well, which is aptly named, and perhaps as good a summation of the album's lyrical themes as any. The piece eventually winds itself into a cacophony of noise, with Sufjan and choir repeating the song's title over and over, Sufjan eventually moving on to, "I'm not fucking around." Impossible Soul is really more of a coda than a climax, and though it moves from one mood to another over the course of its mammoth, multi-segmented twenty-five minute length, the overriding theme is actual a touch uplifting and hopeful. The main chorus is, after all, "Boy, we can do much more together / It's not so impossible". Given what has preceded it, it sounds positively optimistic. The song is almost an album unto itself, and perhaps its greatest triumph lies in making me love the sparsely arranged segment dominated by heavily auto-tuned vocals, and then later, the beat driven, shouted-chorus dance segment.

There's a lot to take in with The Age of Adz, and it's almost hard to know how to approach it, how to evaluate or appreciate it. As with Kid A, I suspect that the album will be praised beyond its worth due largely to the fact that an extremely talented musician has followed up a masterpiece with a good album that is completely different. That is a huge credit to Sufjan Stevens - as it was to Radiohead - but it makes him a better artist more than it makes The Age of Adz a great album. The Age of Adz is good, but if you're looking for the Sufjan of old, you may find him missing.

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