I Want To Be Well – A Discussion of Sufjan Steven’s The Age of Adz
It’s taken me a long time to collect my feelings about one of my favourite artist’s latest album, and I’m not quite sure what that means. After what seemed like a long silence, multi-instrumentalist singer songwriter Sufjan Stevens released his first song based album since 2005’s Illinois in the form of The Age of Adz (pronounced odds). Illinois was a difficult LP to follow, admittedly, an ambitious masterwork widely acclaimed to be one of the best albums of the past decade. Its sounds and emotions were myriad, yet the piece stayed amazingly coherent, not to mention its continuation of the promise of the “fifty states project,” an undertaking by Sufjan to make an eponymous album for each of our country’s states. A lofty project indeed. The three albums he’s released since have merely been scraps (The Avalance, 2006), compilations (Songs for Christmas, 2006), or “artistic explorations,” in the mixed medium ode to the BQE in 2009, and although they’ve all been pretty good, none have really taken advantage of what Sufjan has proven and admitted to be his greatest talent, songwriting. Fans of Sufjan will know this is out of character, as they’ve experienced repeated releases of wonderful albums from 2000-2005, as Stevens put out five records, including the aforementioned giant Illinois, and the genesis of the states project with Michigan.
In the run up to this album, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be another musical like BQE, or had he returned to the form left behind? In August of last year we got a glimpse into what direction Sufjan was moving with the All Delighted People EP. ADP played like an album, too, at almost an hour long, with several songs eclipsing the 5 minute mark (the final track runs 17 minutes). It showed a general gravitation toward bleepy bloopy sonuds that had taken to the genre during his absense, somehow gone were the general feelings that had dominated his earlier works, the bright strings, banjos, and piano that dominated his past works remained and yet there was some sort of darker feeling now, like things were more serious this time around. When it came out, I thought ADP would feel a lot like what The Avalanche was to Illinois, scraps and leftovers from the making of the main album, but it’s turned out to be more of a prototype of sorts.
So this is about The Age of Adz, then, and what I think about it. Like I said at the beginning, its taken me a long time to form an opinion about this for some reason. I suppose it’s difficult to listen to someone who’s music I enjoy so much change so drastically. As you work into Adz, you’ll notice the difference immediately, there’s a lot of electronic noises, and synths with soft attack. Syncopated drum lines that create an unsettling effect. Socically it sounds as if the the classic feelings in albums such as Illinois, grand choruses intact, have been invaded by aliens of some sort, particularly shown in the great “Get Real Get Right,” ominous stuff indeed. I’ll warn you at this point that I’m pretty sure he’s used AutoTune on this album. Lyrically, things have evolved, as well. Previous songs like “Casimir Pulaski Day,” about losing some childhood love to cancer, are replaced by more cerebral pieces focused on matters of one’s own mental (or physical) health, arguably equally weighted but far more disturbing than merely saddening. This bings up an interesting point about the cover art for this album, namely that it’s a rework of an original piece by Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic midcentury artist who Sufjan has grown a fondness for. It’s not just his affinity for Royal that drove the differences in this release, though, as during the writing of Adz, Sufjan was suffering from a debilitating yet unknown chronic illness, as he’s revealed to some interviewers and concert goers.
My thoughts about the album, then? Well as long as it’s taken me to compile these thoughts, and honestly listen to it the whole way through, I have to say that I enjoy it. It’s a really powerful album, from an innovative and changing artist. The more I’ve listened to it the more I realize just how much emotion it’s able to evoke, and to be honest, that’s what I’m really looking for in something that I’m lisening to. Such as a painting or a movie, it may accost the senses at first witness, but persistence is rewarded with what you’ve come for, an emotional response. Not that I’m saying The Age of Adz is hard to listen to, but it may be hard to really settle into, especially for someone who’s a longtime Sufjan Stevens fan. So if any of this rambling has made any sense (or not), and you haven’t given The Age of Adz a chance, do so. If you have, then let me know your thoughts in the comments or something. “I’m not fuckin’ around” (That’s from “I Want To Be Well” . . . Also the first time I think I’ve heard him curse).