Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens returns with his first proper solo album since 2015’s harrowing Carrie and Lowell. Stevens has kept busy collaborating and stretching his multi-instrumentalist muscles, getting more orchestral and ambient since C&L, which remains one of his most spare and delicate albums. It was largely guitar, finger-picking, autobiography, and The Ascension reaches the opposite end of the Stevens spectrum — fantastical new world creation, science fiction, escapism, and Renaissance poetry. On the title track, you can scour the lyrics and mine references to John Donne poetry, Shakespearean tragedy, and biblical references embedded in both the Old and New testaments. And on the opening track, “Make Me an Offer You Cannot Refuse” those ideas are obfuscated under jittery electronica, vocal double tracks, and repeated climaxes of overwhelming waves of horns, drum machines, and synthesizers. He perfectly balances his own Christian anxieties with beautiful and transportive maximalist instrumentation.
He’s not really tried this in a decade. The closest comparison in Stevens’ discography to The Ascension sonically is Age of Adz, but The Ascension feels even more scattered and disorganized than Adz. This isn’t always a bad thing, and Stevens is able to enter into several different worlds throughout this 80-minute behemoth, but it’s also a little harder flip on than Adz. There was a propulsive energy on that 2010 record too that’s missing at times here. The Ascension is ultimately slower, more meditative. And as chaotic as The Ascension can sound, it never really feels like it ever might break. There’s a control that Stevens has at this later stage in his career that keeps him from doing something like screaming “I’m not fucking around,” all over “I Want to Be Well.” Instead, these tracks breathe and grow and peak and dive, but Stevens knows where he wants to end up this time.
Both albums both end with monstrous closers, though “America” on Ascension is still only half as long as 2010’s “Impossible Soul.” He talks directly to God — and does so frequently on this record — begging, maybe even demanding, that He not do to him what He’s done to his country. He engages seriously with theodicy, with repentance, intense guilt both specific to a man of faith and completely universal in nature. Stevens has crafted another singular work, perhaps not as immediate as past works, but just as complex, immersive, and at times as captivating as anything he’s ever done.