Sufjan Stevens Sufjan StevensThe Age Of Adz
Symphotronic? Turbo-folk? Glitch-gospel? Musique concrète or music with a mohawk? This latest from Sufjan has no name. Many people will be put off by this boundless aberration, but those who appreciate him for his overwhelming talent as a composer, producer, and singer, should melt instantly. One can’t help but expect such diverse reactions from the triple somersault that is “The Age of Adz”. In fact, comparisons have already been made to another album that was unexpected and made an impact, as misunderstood at the time as it was praised afterwards. People have spoken of “Kid A”, and although it might seem exaggerated, continuing in this line, we find in “Adz” the same feelings as those aroused by that anthological album: an exciting confusion, absolute perplexity, definitive catharsis. “Adz” requires listeners to set scruples aside, to listen in another way—get ready for a long trip, lasting an hour and twenty minutes, where patience and attention are required—and this is the most powerful thing that a work of art can suggest as a premise. The great thing is that this one also achieves it. Thoroughly dipped in a Stendhal syrup, all of his songs rise from new horizons, inviting one to live in unknown worlds, and they manage to instil in listeners a degree of love for music that is comparable only to that professed by the author writing them: the greatest.
The impact of this extraordinary “Adz” is also magnified because it’s release has caught us by surprise. Before the summer, in several interviews, Sufjan had played with the idea of retiring from the music business. Nevertheless, news around the genius from Detroit started circulating again barely a couple of months ago, when his other LP from this year was hung on his website—enough already of calling it an EP– “All Delighted People”. Shortly afterwards, still overcome by listening to this exquisite work, even though it wasn’t as revealing as his greatest works, Sufjan made up for it by announcing that his real new album, the important one, was coming soon. Today, with both of them on the table, the differences between the two are so clear as to be grotesque. If “All Delighted People” was a farewell to the Sufjan that we knew until now, “The Age of Adz” represents a welcome to a new artist, the great opus with which Sufjan deconstructs his sound to reinvent it at the same time. In this sense, the opening “Futile Devices” seems to be a nod to the past of “Seven Swans” (2004), a title that, by the way, has mysteriously disappeared from the official discography listed on his bandcamp.
Fine-tuning this word that we were looking for earlier, and considering that Sufjan never confuses ambition and pretension, we’ll say that he has finally found the sacred scriptures of folktronic, an intermittent, indecisive genre that we still didn’t have a masterpiece to symbolise. “Adz” is a blessed craziness. Among the stream of images that can be used to describe it, one imposes itself right away: the apocalypse. This has an explanation, because in spite of the cacophony of the title, the degree of fantasy set out and the general colour hark back to “The Wizard of Oz”, and although various lyrics are sung to a higher being, in reality the heart of this album is consecrated to the memory of Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic from Louisiana who proclaimed himself to be a prophet and who, without a doubt, was one for Sufjan. Besides the incredible cover, Sufjan takes from Robertson all of the imagination that impregnates the album: alien creatures, various catastrophes, futuristic visions—but he uses them only as wrapping, without allowing all of these resources to interfere in the soul of the songs. Robertson is the clothing of “Adz”, the excuse for its schizoid sound, but one shouldn’t let oneself be thrown off: this is the least conceptual and most personal work as far as Sufjan as a person goes. Here are the most direct, barest stories of a singer-songwriter who until now has been too heavily shielded by concept albums and a profusion of historical and literary references. In “Adz”, all of this is polished—even the titles show the refinement—and we hear Sufjan holding forth more honestly than ever about love, death, and the loss of faith, the great theme of the album. His sensitivity for it is still ironclad. However much digital horror of emptiness covers everything, he continues to mete out spaces and changes of rhythm masterfully, bringing together the epic and the intimate with divine grace. Listen as his voice emerges, like a deity, in the title song, or look for the great evangelical key in the choruses of “Vesuvius”, when you hear “Sufjan, follow the path, it leads to an article of imminent death. Sufjan, follow your heart, follow the flame, or fall on the floor.”
All told, the resources used aren’t new: they have always been there. From “Enjoy Your Rabbit” (2001) to premonitory orchestral manoeuvres like “The BQE” (2009), by way of the instrumental highways of “Illinois” (2005) or the Christmas tone of his “Songs for Christmas” (2006) gathered together in the beginning of “Now that I’m Older”, “Adz” could be understood as a summary of his entire career, as the result of an impossible listening in which all of his albums play one on top of the other, all at the same time. This is how they have this layered effect of songs within songs, like a bacchanal of artistic prowess that confirms him as one of the indispensable producers of the ProTools generation—if he weren’t already. Sufjan is the omniscient superhero of folk, he has multiple powers, and moreover, he has just stuffed himself on kryptonite without his forces being weakened at all. He captures the vertiginous ideas rolling around in his head on paper, and manages to give shape to a new musical nature, a new order, and he does so in an amazing way: setting banjos and acoustics to one side, handing himself over to digital disarray, to an unleashed bleep, to vocoders and infinite crescendos. This is why “Adz” sounds unreal, utopian, of the abandonment of the earthly—remember that his geographical ambition to make an album for every state of the United States has been definitively set aside—and he has given himself over to levitation.
As an album, it seems removed from it’s moment, seeming to have reached us from 2030 as a digital opera on HD sent to the present. It sounds pumped full of hormones, extraterrestrial. Its virtues are innumerable and its narrative lines recurrent –concepts such as fire, danger, eternity, or victory have the tone of the great biblical commandments. In the more strictly sonic sense, “Adz” gives the synthesiser an importance that is unheard of in folk music. There is “I Walked” – an astronaut hopping around weightlessly next to the altar of a church?– or the 25 minutes of pure ecstasy of “Impossible Soul”. Everything asks to be savoured over and over again, with a pirouette that tastes of lollipop, a sweet candy that nevertheless, never palls. In order to understand “Adz” in its totality, we would have to have total consciousness during every second that it lasts. Effective and secret at each listening, it always makes genius and importance prevail, even over and above amazement. Waxing lyrical, we’ll say that he eclipses all of the other music around him, blocking out the sun, allowing us to see the stars better. We’ll be pedantic and quote Dalí, concluding that “from the ferocious constraining of the quotients of Jesuit elasticity and viscosity by the implacable ethic structures of the tablets of morality are born the great works of art.” These are keys that Sufjan was very clear about before recording this album. Later, he tried to carry it out, he achieved it, and on the seventh day, he rested. Cristian Rodríguez