Style: Orchestral experimental pop; compare to The Danielson Famile, Brian Wilson, Bjork
Top tracks: "Too Much," "Get Real Get Right," "Impossible Soul"
Forget the odes to Lincoln and Casimir Pulaski, the allusions to Flannery O'Connor stories and whispered hymns about Christ's transfiguration. Independent musician/composer Sufjan Stevens seems bent on dodging listener expectations, which have mounted since 2005, when his civic opera Illinois landed the demure Michigan native in indie mega-stardom. Unlike his previous full-length albums, his newest, The Age of Adz, conspicuously lacks a narrative theme, instead featuring cryptic lyrics about human love and desire, and the end of days. Stevens has traded his signature banjo for digital wizardry, using electronic beats as the backbone of the 75-minute album. He has also abandoned the 50 states project; if anywhere, Adz (pronounced "odds") is located somewhere among the stars.
Stevens begins his grand sound experiment quietly with "Futile Devices," a profession of brotherly love, before moving to "Too Much" and the title track. Both are ornate, multi-layered melodies that interweave a small chorus of male and female voices (a Stevens signature) with cascading flutes, sappy trombones, and bleeps and whirs that sound like fight scenes from Star Trek. "I Walked," the album's first single, is a nod to 1980s synthesized pop, a down-tempo lament about a cold romance that's led to drastic measures: "Lover, will you look from me now / I'm already dead / but I've come to explain, why I left such a mess on the floor / For when you went away, I went crazy." On this album, love always comes with pain and misunderstanding.
Adz deemphasizes the theological themes that have endeared Stevens to certain Christians, but they are present, if not always earnest: "Get Real Get Right," for example, is an apocalyptic warning—delivered by spacemen. The intended effect is both ominous and kitschy: "Spaceship at the house at night / Prophet, speak what's on your mind." Their message? "Get right with the Lord." "Vesuvius" is a Greco-Roman processional that has Stevens calling on the volcano, the "fire of fire," to "fall on me now as I favor the ghost." Holy or otherwise, the ghost has Stevens asking repeatedly, "Why does it have to be so hard?"
"Impossible Soul," the final track that runs over 25 minutes, showcases Stevens's formal training as well as his playfulness in the studio. He incorporates hints of disco, soul, and even auto-tunes a couple verses. But beneath all the masterful mixing is a personal confession: "And all I want is the perfect love, though I know it's small, I won't hurt for its soul / … I would say it all, my love, to you, if I could get you at all." Stevens has called this his "first love song," and in its banjo-led conclusion, he seems resigned to the impossibility of romance without sorrow. The Age of Adz lacks Jesus references and even includes some colorful language, which may trouble some listeners. But they will discover a more complex understanding of Stevens, who as it turns out, is neither a "Christian artist" nor an "artist who is a Christian," but a human like the rest of us.
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