Most people would call The Age of Adz Sufjan Stevens' first proper album since 2005, when the much-lauded Illinois made him a household name—at least in recently gentrified neighborhoods. While his new legion of fans (including myself) eagerly anticipated odes to our respective states that were as gut-wrenching as they were exhaustively researched, Stevens instead gave us a Christmas series, a symphonic suite and the surprisingly abundant overflow of Illinois-themed songs.
He seemed to be fleeing from the spotlight, willfully sabotaging the momentum built with a trio of records, Michigan, Seven Swans and Illinois that were tied together by an orchestral-folk style—a sound that only occasionally peeks through on the much noisier Age of Adz. But looking back further, those three album represent an unusual consistency in a career marked with experimentation, progression and, well, noise.
Stevens started out playing folk-rock in his college band, Marzuki, and the first strains of his solo album A Sun Came! play like the soundtrack to a Renaissance Fair. But even then he was playing with vocal effects, adding an unusual spectrum of instruments and interspersing cacophonic jam sessions like “Rice Pudding” and ridiculous interludes years before Kanye West. And he followed that album with Enjoy Your Rabbit, 14 tracks of noisy electronica that make the most industrial moments on Age of Adz seem downright melodic.
So his pursuit of side projects might have had nothing to do with a response to all the attention. Those projects likely just interested him more than the traditional collection of songs we’ve been pining for. He said in an interview with Paste last year that his work on The BQE for the Brooklyn Academy of Music blew up his idea of a “song” to the point where three- to five-minute verse-chorus-verse structures no longer made sense. “In all honesty, that piece is what really sabotaged my creative momentum,” he said. “It wasn’t Illinois so much. I suffered sort of an existential creative crisis after that piece. I no longer knew what a song was and how to write an album. It overextended me in a way that I couldn’t find my way back to the song.”
In that light, The Age of Adz and the EP that preceded, All Delighted People, aren’t so much a departure as an amalgamation of all that’s come before—the chamber elements, the synthetic dissonance and the heart-rending lyrics. It’s as carefully orchestrated as The BQE, employing a series of movements and a vast array of instrumentation within even some of the shortest songs. Instead of straightforward vignettes tackling the human condition, the lyrics are more jumbled enigmatic pleas. Throughout, voices move in and out, overlapping off the time signatures so that the chorus seems to be flying around like a host of wayward angels.
He begins innocently enough with “Futile Devices,” whose gentle strings could have politely taken a seat next to anything on Seven Swans. But the blips and bleeps of “Too Much” quickly announce that we’re a long way from Michigan. The album’s cover and title reference apocalyptic painter Royal Robertson, and the lyrics dip into the self-proclaimed prophet’s paranoid schizophrenia. But Stevens continues his exploration into the darkest darks and brightest lights of previous efforts, just with more vigor and mystery.
“Why does it have to be so hard?” he sings on “Vesuvius.” “Did I go at it wrong?” he wonders on “I Want to Be Well,” “Did I go intentionally to destroy me? I want to be well…I’m not fucking around.” On the 25-minute opus “Impossible Soul,” he laments, “Seems I got it wrong / I was chasing after something that was gone…Do you want to be afraid / No, I don’t want to feel pain” before the album erupts into its most joyful moment with the refrain, “Boy, we can do much more together / It’s not so impossible.” The lyrics are filled with an earnest desperation that’s rougher, more visceral and more demanding of noisy accompaniment than the story songs on Illinois.
But the themes he explored via the history of the Midwest are still present here. The Sufjan whose floor boards hid a multitude of sins on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” shows up again at the end of “Impossible”: “I’m nothing but a selfish man / I’m nothing but a privileged brother / And did you think I’d stay the night? / And did you think I’d love you forever?…Boy, we made such a mess together”
Illinois was Paste’s album of the decade and a masterpiece in my eyes. I’d have been happy to have its equivalent for every state from Hawaii to Maine, but I’ve long made peace that those weren’t coming. And while The Age of Adz has no single song that stirs me like the short stories of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” its music is as equally layered and its poetry is often more complex. It’s what you hope for from your favorite artists in your best moments—evolution, a little difficulty and, especially, something new.