Well, this is going to be an interesting Album of the Month.
Each one of us on the blog/pod has a history with Sufjan Stevens. Some longer than others, some with more passion than others. But that doesn’t mean that we agree on all things Sufjan. Quite the opposite it appears. And if there was a Sufjan album to force a wedge between our personal preferences … then this is it.
My history with Sufjan was a little delayed given the wave of adoration that followed ‘Illinois’. Apparently I was a little slow on the uptake. Illinois was released in 2005 (gulp). I didn’t get to it until around 2009. I can mark the time well as my wife was pregnant with my first child and we (over) played it to death. She didn’t have the greatest pregnancy and now can’t listen to the album as it is so synonymous with feeling sick and bloated. Not Sufjan’s fault but still. I then bought the Age of Adz the day after my daughter was born. This album marked a seismic change in instrumentation from Sufjan … one that came with a very mixed (and in the case of David, surprisingly aggressive) reaction. I loved it, but hey, I’d just had a little girl. I would have loved most things.
Then came a silly Xmas album in 2012 … and then in 2015 we chose Carrie and Lowell (C&L) as album of the month. And I think we all agreed it’s close to perfection. As albums that I love to cry along to go, it’s right up there with Put Your Back N 2 it by Perfume Genius. It’s deeply personal, beautifully sparse, hypnotically produced and perfectly written.
A bunch of oddities have been released between then and now. But The Ascension is Mr. Steven’s first proper album since then. Much to David’s shock, the album is ‘Electro Sufjan’ again. But I would state that it is a very different proposition to Age of Adz. Age of Adz was full of pomp and theatrical posturing. I get why some hated it. I didn’t and that’s cool.
I think this album is at least as personal and introspective as C&L. Sufjan was moving from New York to the countryside of America and didn’t have access to his banjos, guitars and traditional range of instruments. He has said that he was limited to what he could plug into his computer. For me, this album does feel like he was ‘constrained’. But I am not sure if this is in a bad way. It’s a very different Sufjan Stevens we hear on this album and I am ok with that. Some have suggested it sounds like he’s ‘trying to hard’. I think this album sounds like he’s ‘trying’, i.e. this doesn’t feel 100% natural and feels less than 100% comfortable … but I am ok with this. I think I am getting into this vulnerability.
Let’s talk about its length. It’s long! 80 minutes. Exactly 100% longer than my preferred album length. There are some long old tracks on it too. The longest, America (12 mins) was the 1st single so it’s not like we didn’t have warning. He also shared Sugar ahead of the release date which clocks in at 7+ mins. He also shared a 15 strong track list for the album. So I guess this has to be considered as a ‘double album’ which isn’t usually a good thing.
You have to make a commitment to this album. I think it only makes sense when you do. I’ve practically listened to nothing else for a whole week. And I have been rewarded. I don’t ‘love’ this yet. But I am loving listening to it. As each track starts, I know that I like each one. There are no tracks here that I would remove. This is true for very few albums. Some tracks i like. Some I love. I think a few of my all time fave Sufjan tracks are on this album. He’s a great song writer and he’s doing something very different. I think we should respect that and applaud it.
Sufjan Steven’s is one of the few artists that when he’s reviewed, lazy critics don’t simply list a bunch of people he sounds like … cause he doesn’t. Other people sound like him. However, there are moments where for the 1st time I’ve thought … oh … he’s doing a Thom Yorke thing there (Ativan) or a Caribou drum production thing (I want to die happy and a few others). I don’t think he’s mastered the electronic craft yet and is therefore referencing others but again … I’m cool with that.
There are a few moments where someone should have tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘that’s enough Sufjan’ (i) America should be an 8 minute track, the last 4 minutes? Sorry but no (ii) Ativan should be 4 mins for the same reason.
So. At this point in time. I am very glad this is in my life. I am glad he’s done what he’s done. Oh, and Video Games is such a surprise. Where did that come from? Single of the year? (I can hear all of your screaming at me for suggesting that one).
Commit to it. Give it some space and time. It does deserve it.