Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Ascension’ is a masterful piece of global crisis era art – review
Sufjan Stevens cannot be pigeonholed. No matter how many "sad boy with a guitar" stereotypes or "albums about all 50 states" jokes you can come up with, you'll never have him pegged. He'll always release an album that shakes up the public perception of him once again, and judging by his output so far, it'll always be very, very good. This has been especially true in the past decade, which -- along with some other miscellaneous projects -- saw the release of two proper studio albums, 2010's The Age of Adz and 2015's Carrie & Lowell. The former saw this onetime somber indie folk musician expand his sonic palette to include maximalist electronic art pop and a genuinely fantastic 25-minute song, and the latter saw him embracing the bare-bones music of his early days, but it wasn't a "return to form." Sufjan doesn't return to things so much as he reinvents them and explores new territory in the process. That's what he did on Carrie & Lowell and it's also what he does on the new The Ascension, an album that's unmistakably the work of Sufjan Stevens but doesn't feel like anything he's done before.
Sufjan made a lot of the album with a synthesizer and a drum machine (with contributions from James McAlister, Casey Foubert, Bryce Dessner, and Emil Nikolaisen), so at first glance it shares DNA with The Age of Adz, but that album is big and bright and loud and this album is small and hushed like Carrie & Lowell and much of his early work. So, "Age of Adz meets Carrie & Lowell"? Sort of, but still not quite. It's a bleaker, angrier, more confrontational album than we're used to hearing from him, and it's an album that captures 2020 so perfectly that it's hard to imagine it coming out at any other point in his career.
The twelve and a half minute "America," which closes the album, was released as the first single and Sufjan describes it as the song that set the tone for the rest of the LP. "Don't do to me what you did to America" he sings over and over. He actually wrote the lyrics during the Carrie & Lowell sessions but shelved it because it was "mean-spirited and miles away from everything else on" that album. But when he listened again a few years later, he "could no longer dismiss it as angry and glib. The song was clearly articulating something prophetic and true," he said, "even if I hadn’t been able to identify it at the time. That’s when I saw a clear path toward what I had to do next."
"America" isn't the only song in which Sufjan ostensibly responds to the current political climate -- there's also the title track ("I thought I could change the world around me"), "Death Star" ("Death star into space / What you call the human race / Witness me, resist the hate"), "Sugar" ("All the shit they try to feed us / Don't drink the poison or they'll defeat us"), and others -- but The Ascension isn't an exclusively political album. Sometimes the conversations he's having in these songs sound like they're on a smaller scale, sometimes they're internal. "We can’t really solve the problems [on a global scale], but we can solve the problems around us or within us," he told The Quietus. Whether he's looking outwards or inwards, at society or at his neighbors, Sufjan says the album is "working through arguments and posing challenges and grappling with crisis" but not necessarily offering any answers. "The language is very clear, coherent and argumentative, but I don’t think there are any solutions."
The Ascension also sounds like the ultimate quarantine album, and he did make the majority of it alone in his home in the Catskills (where he moved after coming home from vacation to a rat-infested NYC apartment). Age of Adz was an electronic pop album that was built for the grand, spectacular tour that Sufjan supported the album with, but The Ascension sounds like the work of someone staying up at night making beats and humming into their laptop. It's danceable at times but it's not "dance music," and Sufjan isn't belting it for the people in the cheap seats; he's using the kind of hushed delivery that comes naturally when no one else is in the room. It's as well-crafted as you'd expect from Sufjan, and it does have a few collaborators, but it's more intimate than most of Sufjan's albums and rawer even than Carrie & Lowell. Carrie & Lowell is quiet and intimate, but it was still recorded at various professional studios with production by Thomas Bartlett and backing vocalists. It's a pristine, complete-sounding, near-perfect album. In contrast, The Ascension doesn't sound like it's striving for perfection. It sometimes sounds like it's still in "home demo" mode, but due to COVID-19 restrictions and/or global distractions, it just had to stay that way. I don't mean that negatively, though. The Ascension is a masterful piece of global crisis-era art, marks and blemishes included.
The Ascension is out now on Asthmatic Kitty. Stream it and watch the videos for "Sugar" and "Video Game" below...