Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Emperor’s New Clothes
The Wikipedia page on Sufjan Stevens gives us an endearing image: him strumming a guitar with, of all things, a pair of multi-coloured wings. Given all that we now know that he has faced in the five years without proper new material, it is quite apt. For the uninitiated, those wings used to be starchy white given the universal critical love that his past albums have enjoyed. Sufjan’s appeal to indie-heads has always been a bit cerebral: a kind of intellectual nod to the unflinching Chistian-based idealism he espoused. But after a daring scheme to dedicate whole albums to the fifty states of America, Stevens has interminably broken down. While the length of this review alone couldn’t properly detail his exhaustive musical output, suffice it to say that the pedestal he was placed upon after the stunning Illinois (2005) has proved to be the breaking point.
A breaking point that threatens to rebel against his lofty lyrical eviscerations because such conscientiousness demands a sturdy personal examination on a rotating basis. It was no surprise to me then to read somewhere that he had likened his construction of the album to how Woody Allen directs and stars in any of his film, most notably Manhattan. Add the inspiration of mad-cap artist Royal Robertson and you begin to understand the mountain of neuroses and schizophrenia that Sufjan has layered the album with. The Age of Adz (pronounced ‘odds’) thus powders its face with heavy electronics and orchestration but not the quasi-spiritual overtones we’ve become accustomed to. The immediate difference between it and its predecessors is the fact that instead of interpolations of ideas, Sufjan now is sharing something apparently real, worldly things that we’ve all experienced during our lives like a broken heart or a crisis of self.
In short, he’s finally become one of us, the imperfect mass of human life-form that he always seemed above of. It is this new found relatable factor that makes the opener Futile Devices touching even amid his trademark acoustic arrangement. I Walked, the standout, starts out with a quasi-R&B beat but mutates into a mournful wall of reverb that ricochets so sumptuously that it’s exhilarating and sad at the same time. I couldn’t image any of the second tier R&B crooners around (Usher, John Legend, etc) doing anything this mournful or remotely sexy. It’s intriguingly erotic too; something previous Sufjan songs were not. Chicago and John Wayne Gacy Jr had the same template but they were instructive songs to a fault: meant to warn not inspire conflicting emotion. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same Sufjan Stevens we’ve thought steadfastly as a Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, Republican-voting moralist the past decade. Like, seriously, what accounts for the jittery beat that course throughout another highlight, I Want to Be Well? When he croons, ‘do yourself some good/ do yourself a favour/ do yourself a turn from the ordinary’, it’s almost as if the five years have coloured his dark materials to the point of becoming a soul brother. Another gem, Too Much, turns the amps up and the studio atmospherics literally bounce off each other with a care-free kinetic energy. Get Real, Get Right incorporates all the little tweaks and quirks we’ve become used to from Bjork but Stevens unearths an even weirder type of funk within the heavy layers of textures used.
Even the cagey ideas have a specialty to them that lets one know that Stevens has given us his best album to date. Now That I’m Older drags through six minutes of atmospherics but once his vocals chip in, it turns utterly mesmerizing: in effect, working a short yet clever trick until it’s done. Even when he retreads (Vesuvius) it sounds heightened, exalted even because there’s a worldly conviction behind it now, not just a theoretical one. The ambitious 25- minute closer Impossible Soul somehow works mainly due to the jarring horns awaiting us almost at every turn. They work to prop up his electronic synths and direction as it morphs itself into a separate EP’s worth of ideas. It’s more that twice the length of Joanna Newsom’s titular track for her album this year but both know how to cleverly spin a tale: she lyrically and he musically. His title track here bleeds electronic dissonance while being, at heart, a love letter. All for Myself proves that both Jaime Stewart and Antony Hegarty have been slacking off in the baroque pop terrain and are approaching irrelevance.
Sufjan’s ideas here aren’t exactly unprecedented—musicians have always been meant to question themselves-- but he’s made a great sonic record about losing faith and juxtaposed it with the result of what happens when the disillusion lifts. Like the cover art for the album, one senses that there is a new Sufjan emerging from the principles that has always guided him. The majestic emperor figure sketched decades ago by Robertson is regally robed but there is a red colour applied almost as if to highlight some inner turmoil slowly becoming external. The effect is pretty yet effective: ladies and gentlemen, the questioning section of the Sufjan Stevens career is over.
Where does it stand in the annals of 21st century popular music? Is it better than Kid A or will it have the same long-lasting effect? Honestly, I have no idea but Pitchfork loves it and it will feature prominently on most year-end critics’ lists. I reckon this is the new decade’s first great introspective album. It may take some time for his old fans to appreciate its change of direction and his loss of ideological innocence but no one can say that Sufjan hasn’t blown a huge load all over us with this brilliant album. I’d be a damned liar if I said I wasn’t here still gasping for breath listening to it while reaching for the hand towel…