The Age of I
Throughout The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens sings "I" and its variations ("I'm," "I've," and "I'll") 278 times. Give or take. Not only that, but, in "Vesuvius," he takes the third-person leap, employing a choir to sing "Sufjan" twice; stretching the word out to three syllables to both parallel the song's title, and to exaggerate its appearance.
Stevens is self-aware enough not to, like some self-mythologizing rapper, refer to himself in the third person without a dash of irony involved. But, including his own name here is the most obvious admissal of something that record's lyric sheet makes abundantly clear: The Age of Adz is all about its songwriter.
Across his six albums and numerous related projects, Stevens has never put himself in front of the material. In fact, he's often contended the idea of music as simple form of personal expression; working with the grand narrative arcs, deep-seated thematic concerns, and sense of eventual detachment that defines novelists, not singer-songwriters.
The only prior LP that could be considered a 'personal' work was 2004's Seven Swans, with its discussions of biblical parable, the weight of faith, and Stevens' own childhood. Still, there was always a sense that he was at a remove, telling stories more than singing directly. And, well, his grappling-with-faith, in those songs, has absolutely nothing on The Age of Adz's closing cut, "Impossible Soul," a five-part, 25-minute, poly-character dialogue discussing various spiritual/existential Stevens crises.
"Impossible Soul" also shows how unafraid this new, direct Sufjan is of new, surprising musical modes. Whilst it shares its themes, The Age of Adz is nearly the stylistic opposite of Seven Swans' sweet, wispy, banjo-plucking Sunday-School-folk. It's an album dense with productional work: hours logged at a computer, arraying electronic programming and digital ripples. There's washes of effects, voices cut-up and splayed, and, yes, as recidivists have been aghast at, there's Autotune.
In many ways, the palette —and the effect— is reminiscent of a Björk record: employing electronic programming, orchestral instruments, voice, and nothing more. The badly-outdated, rockist reaction would proclaim that its digital nature makes it colder, more distant, but the opposite is true. As Stevens' lyrical bent would suggest, these busy arrangements —these arraignments of skipping files and digitized unrealities— are more intensely intimate than anything Sufjan has done before. He's emphasizing the personal in PC; The Age of Adz the sound of one man, directly interfacing with his audience.
The Joy of Music
The Age of Adz arrives as Stevens' first album of new songs in five years. Ever the workaholic, Stevens stayed busy throughout the hiatus, presiding over his record label, Asthmatic Kitty, collections of b-sides, DVDs based on audio-visual performance pieces, and string quartet reinterpretations of his old concept-glitch-opera, Enjoy Your Rabbit. It started to seem like Stevens was doing everything but make a new record, something confirmed when he confessed, in an interview, that he was asking "What's the point of making music anymore?"
Stevens also admitted he was "sick of [his] conceptual ideas," and "tired of these grand, epic endeavors," that he just wanted to "make music for the joy of making music." Which leads directly to The Age of Adz. Stevens' sixth LP is the first since his first, 2000's A Sun Came, to not be conceptually-driven. And, even though it feels like it's the product of years of hard labor, hard emotional times, and hard-won wisdoms, The Age of Adz also feels utterly joyous; and is, without doubt, a joy to listen to.
"Impossible Soul" is a work of ridiculous ambition. "I Walked" is a Sufjan soul jam, with a wicked falsetto, a crunchy back-beat, nasty synths, and a text half-erotic, half-apology. "All for Myself" trips along with a skipping sample-loop, squelches of bassy keytone, and trills of tin whistle (I think), before suddenly exploding in an ecstatic, anthemic chorus. "Now That I'm Older" is a rapturous hymnal filled with sadness; waves of voices and flutters of piano and harp turning eternal circles as they ascend to some kind of musical heaven.
The Truth (But Not as We Know It)
This all amounts to a radical reinvention of what Stevens was supposed to be, and, in his discography, stands as a fearless departure towards parts unknown. Where his '50 States Project' LPs —2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois— were ponderous, self-conscious, and considered to the point where they felt stifled, stiff, and proper, The Age of Adz feels alive in its every instant, open to constant interpretation, and devastatingly emotional.
The critical consensus seems to be that this is a bit of an amusing mis-step, an album of crazy electronic jams that represents some kind of comedown from the conceptual heights of Illinois. This couldn't be further from the truth. Ditching the formalism of thematic writing, forgetting about his tendency towards Steve Reich pastiches, and shelving the zany song-titles, Stevens sounds, here, like a man liberated. Like a free soul, freely expressing himself however he sees fit. Instead of form dictating content, it's content dictating form: music made as an expression of self, not as academic exercise.
The Age of Adz is Stevens' bravest, most brilliant, and, thus far, best album. Anyone who tells you anything else is wrong.
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Release Date: October 12, 2010