Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Electropop | Dream Pop
To say that Sufjan Stevens is an eclectic artist would be quite the understatement. In fact one of the few constants of his career is that his style is consistently changing and growing. Even so, I find it curious that in many ways his latest release seems to stand in sharp contrast with its predecessor. The sparse folk of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell was about as austere and intimate as they come. The bittersweet melodies of the rough-spun arrangements a simple canvas for his words, as he embarked on a deeply personal journey into the sadness of the past and the grief of the present. This new record however is something else altogether. If the atmosphere of Carrie & Lowell was that of Super 8 home video footage of a cabin in Oregon, then the densely orchestrated electronics of The Ascension is more like drone footage of a shimmering city skyline illuminating the night sky.
It’s by no means Sufjan’s first foray into electronics, but while The Age of Adz was all about hit and run with striking flourishes, here we have a more complex layering of synths, beats and samples building upon each other. Opening track ‘Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse’ could easily pass as a deep cut from one of Radiohead’s more electronic works. While I generally shy away from most electronica (and there are certainly a few droning repetitive moments like ‘Lamentations’ and ‘Die Happy’ that serve as prime examples as to why) there are some great moments here every bit as lush and colourful as the artwork suggests. ‘Run Away With Me’ and ‘Videogame’ both boast stunning synth work and earworm melodies, the backing vocals on ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ are simply mesmerising, and I could listen to the kaleidoscopic breakdown in ‘Landslide’ all afternoon. The title track crafts a wonderfully understated dreamy atmosphere, while the final coda of epic closing track ‘America’ offers some beautiful expansive soundscapes.
Lyrically while the last record had an intense inward focus, The Ascension takes a disinterested glance in every direction. It’s perhaps best summed up by the opening line of ‘Tell Me You Love Me’: “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything”. The album revolves around a crisis of faith. Not merely surrounding god, although that aspect plays a key role, but in everything you thought you knew. Facing up to the fact that you feel like a stranger in your own country, and how pop culture just flits by without so much as a murmur of interest. This rumination about disinterest and disillusionment acts as a unifying thread for the whole record, ironically hitting home a message about feeling directionless with real artistic drive and purpose. It’s a topic that I’ve rarely seen explored this well, and is a real strength of the album, but it also feeds into it’s biggest flaw.
To put it bluntly, The Ascension is a slog. It’s an exhausting, demanding listen. At 80 minutes it’s one of the most excessive and bloated records I’ve come across in recent years (and this coming from a prog fan). While this makes the record a somewhat daunting prospect right from the off, being so drawn out also actively works against what the record is trying to achieve. We all love a sad album every now and then, but nearly an hour and a half of almost unrelenting melancholy is enough to break anyone’s spirit. The lengthy run time makes the repetitive electronic elements feel all the more tedious, and even the otherwise interesting themes about the struggle to find meaning begin to outstay their welcome; blurring the line between sympathetic despondency and obnoxious cynical whining akin to Holden Caulfield. I have no doubt that this is the kind of album that needs time to grow on you, with a lot to be gained from multiple listens, but given what an imposing task that is I think only the most ardent of fans will be willing to invest their time.