Sufjan Stevens’ contribution to Dark Was The Night, the 2009 benefit album for HIV charity Red Hot, was the ten-minute electro-orchestral exercise “You are the Blood”. Easily outmaneuvering the soppy acoustic fare on that two-disc collection, his Castanets cover distilled the multi-instrumentalism of previous albums into a lurching brass section and moaning vocal harmonies, and then spread the potent mixture over a creakingly simple song structure. That singular overload has now been translated into an album, but it is not just the instrumentation of The Age of Adz that ‘You are the Blood’ prefigures. On the latter, Stevens visualises the song’s addressee as the blood in his veins, electricity in his fingers; emotion is internalised and run through self-referential circuits, trapped within subject himself. Correspondingly, The Age of Adz abandons the perspective and tone of his preceding albums- encyclopaedic excursions into the trivial and grand histories of others, empathetic and broad-minded in subject matter and instrumentation- for an intense introspection fuelled by repetitive electronics. As plenty of commentators have already noted, these skittering beats are not unprecedented for Stevens; he explored these sounds on early records such as ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, demonstrating how prodigious he has always been, rather than making any great leap forward.
Such a sideways step was always going to draw breath, risking the misunderstanding of those fans happy to lose themselves in the library of studied musicality that was Illinois or Michigan. And after the kaleidoscope of public perspectives on those ‘States’ albums, Stevens shows steel nerves to refract all his metaphors and melodies through personal pain; this is a ‘breakup’ album in the old- school sense. A brave move, then, but whilst any of these tracks heard in isolation is likely to impress, the album as a whole suffers from niggling inconsistencies and weaknesses.
For one thing, the beats that support these songs seem oddly homogenous. Stevens has always demonstrated an ear for rhythmic diversity: remember the moment on ‘Illinois’ when the dainty country plucking of ‘Decatur’ melts into the pounding ‘Chicago’. Here, the electronics bubble and twitch like a geyser without ever truly erupting, or else they drop out entirely on piano-led numbers such as ‘Now That I’m Older’. This broad percussive approach is reflected in the lyrics, which leave Stevens open to accusations of heart-on-sleeve, egotistical emoting where we have come to expect polite exposition (sample: “Sufjan, the panic inside, the murdering ghosts that you cannot ignore.”) The melodies and harmonies are unmistakably Stevens’, but as they are laced with reverb here, bleeding in and out of the arrangements- especially on the choral “Now That I’m Older”- the album seems somewhat limp, warbling vocally.
As Stevens hugs his listener close, he paradoxically holds them at a further distance than on any previous release. His famed maximalism seems cheapened here, reduced to baroque trills and arpeggios on flutes and recorders, blocks of brass blasting, and some undeniably impressive wordless harmonies. ‘Too Much’ offers a powerful initial flurry of beeps and sighs, and ‘All For Myself’ tiptoes over hills of anxious emotion with poise and delicacy. Yet, in the end, the dense expanse of the album overwhelms to the point that the simple trick of slipping a fast track into the mix (‘I Want To Be Well’) has the impression of offering a cheap rush. It takes the closing song, 25 minute opus ‘Impossible Soul’, for Stevens to step back, and combine the electronic impulse and ominous vibe with his usual craft and humour.
This is a stunning song, a cross-section of the abilities of one of the world’s most versatile stylists, pulsing with ideas, rhythms, tunes, quirks: but the fact that it is so bloated and out of step with the rest of the album seems to demean both its very independent charms and the quality of the work around it.
Perhaps the above worries stem from more fundamental structural anxieties. Shortly before the release of his documentary-soundtrack The BQE, Stevens gave an interview in which he questioned the continued relevance of the album as a format: “I definitely feel like the album no longer has any real bearing anymore. The physical format itself is obsolete; the CD is obsolete and the LP is kinda nostalgic. I’m wondering, ‘What’s the value of my work once these forms are obsolete and everyone’s just downloading music?’” Reveling and perplexing in the lush texture of The Age of Adz, it is tempting to conclude that Stevens’ uncertainty about the album format has resulted in a retreat into this challenging and frustrating insularity, both lyrical and stylistic. Best to dip into this soundworld at intervals, leaving breathing space for the undeniably thrilling showmanship to work in. Or to take ‘Impossible Soul’ alone as a distilled version of what it was Stevens was aiming for here, what he’s capable of, and to see the rest of the album as what it is: a stuttering and necessary crescendo to this career highpoint.