AOTM October 2020 – Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’

Sufjan Stevens' Sprawling The Ascension Seeks Solace in Pessimism | Review  | Consequence of Sound

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.

12 comments

  1. whyohwhyohwhy

    Well. This is definitely one for debate. And while I’ve only done a few listens so want to reserve full judgement until I’ve got into it I’ll certainly say Joey makes some great points and things I agree with, just not everything.

    We’ve done ‘listening time’ and ‘listening space’ to death but 80 minutes is a real investment and something I’ve not managed to give it, undisturbed. So I know my opinion will develop. I was actually really surprised that Carrie and Lowell was Sufjan’s last album. It seems a lot has happened since then! I do love that album dearly and of course that means this is a pretty big about turn.

    What I will say at the moment feels like a familiar refrain. The album is too long. I’d disagree with Joey -at this stage – as I have drifted through some of the tracks and I’m not sure I could pick all of them out. I’ve read the stories about his relocation and why the sound of the album is so different and I’m on board with that. It’s not experimentation for it’s sake, but you definitely feel it’s an artist that’s so skilled feeling their way in unfamiliar waters. It shows. Not in an unfair way, but if Dan Snaith made a folk album we’d be saying the same.

    There’s definitely some tracks I really like. Sugar is beautiful. As is Ascension, though I’d agree both could easily lose a minute or two. Similarly, America is majestic but I’m not sure anything other than a minute of its sonic backwash at the end is needed. There’s definite ambition and I like that. Artists shouldn’t change every album just as an end in itself but if they find something new for them and for us then that’s a good thing. And I feel that’s happening here, even if I’m yet to ‘get’ the Album as a whole.

    But the jury is out, because it’s impossible to make a proper judgement on something this expansive and lengthy until I’ve had some time with it.

    The next podcast will not be an RTJ experience, I can certainly say that.

  2. whyohwhyohwhy

    Come on brothers, get your thoughts down! Ep5 awaits….

    I’m a good dozen listens in and some of my thoughts have changed and some haven’t. But the album does develop as you put the time in. Though this is part of the problem. I’m not going to beat about the bush: it’s too long. I can’t imagine many people would feel otherwise. This presents practical problems – such as listening in one go when I work from home, have meetings, don’t drive anywhere far away, and don’t go running for long enough (and having a 3 year-old around) – so I’ve only listened to it in one go 3 times. And as odd as this sounds, that’s when I get the least from it. Why? Because in one go things start to blend into one. I can’t see the whole yet, and I’m not sure I ever will now.

    This sounds all rather gloomy, and it’s not. But I have problems with the Ascension. Yes, it’s too long. And yes, some tracks are too long. Many of them over 6 minutes could be 30% shorter and lose none of their strength. Even so, the album would still be around an hour, and that still feels too long. I feel that perhaps there was some self-indulgence here, perhaps the new ‘sound’ gave too much of that freedom, but to me it’s too loose. There’s not enough reigns in place to allow it to be the album it could be. Somewhere in here’s a 50 minute slice of modern electronic pop about the human condition that I’m going to love, but it’s not there as it is now. Which is a massive shame, because Sufjan clearly is talented.

    There’s real brilliance in there: Sugar, The Ascension (where the album gets as close to C&L as it does, and of course, sounds the best), Tell Me You Love Me, which blows its lovely 4 minutes by disappearing into a mess of strange, almost EDM-like overambition. Ursa Major channels Wayne Coyne in a good way, playing Sufjan’s reedy voice well, where often its just submerged in overdone electronica. Make Me An Offer is also a track that gets better with listens. But I just can’t get beyond its faults. Even Video Game and America, which I both loved when I first heard them, are starting to grate. The former because its sparky pop seems to have less the more I listen, and America, perhaps just because every time I listen I want to press stop after 8 minutes. Others, I’m less complimentary about: perhaps because they sound like nods to other artists that do that sound better. I Wanna Die Happy evokes John Hopkins, but just not as well. Death Star makes me just think Grimes. And I do not like Grimes. Others just drift by without leaving much impression. The album’s length just ends up diluting the album’s overall power because it feels like the next day by the time it’s over.

    I don’t say any of this lightly. Or happily. I LOVED Carrie and Lowell, and listening to it this week just reflected on The Ascension even more starkly. I then gave Seven Swans a go and it left a first impression on me that I still haven’t had with this album. And while I appreciate it’s an album dictated by circumstance, thus creating a ensemble of different instruments for Stevens to work with, but the danger is that ambition and freedom have just as much chance to make something incredible as it does underwhelming. And when you’re learning on the job (which this sadly feels like) it can’t aid the process. Also, Sufjan’s voice just doesn’t seem suited to this accompaniment. Even double-tracked its often thin sounding and gets muffled by the layers of synths, drums, pads and effects. It’s no surprise that it feels better when it’s paired with acoustic guitar or keyboards.

    I will say this: I’m not giving up on it yet, but given the music I’ve heard from Sufjan, and loved, before, it feels like a leap too far. I applaud the balls needed to go this far out of your comfort zone. And perhaps I’m just David going all Yes Tumour on us. As the person with least history, I’m also probably able to be this caustic. But I’m fascinated to see how everyone rolls with this. I can’t be the only one.

  3. misterstory

    i think thats a fair and balanced write up Guy. i’ve gone on a real journey with this. i am less positive about it when i wrote up initially. However, i do listen to it a lot. As you say, never in one go (i think i have done that 4 times in 2 months which is unheard of for an AOTM) but but i do listen to it a fair bit. The reasons i am still listening to it are;

    1) my god he can write a tune
    2) i’ve grown fond of some of its quirks
    3) if i am busy i tend to overlook the stuff that really pisses me off about it (but that list does grow on every listen)
    4) it makes me want to listen to ‘Seven Swans’ and ‘Carrie and Lowell’ and so i get lost in a little Sufjan world for a day
    5) not sure there is a 5th one but a list of 4 things looked odd?

  4. misterstory

    The album feels like a needy lover that demands your attention. You’ve had good times with them so you give them this attention. You uncover a few issues with your relationship and ask yourself ‘is it them or is it me?’ … just incase it is you, you give them more attention. Only to find that they do your head in a bit and you wanna be with your friends.

    • whyohwhyohwhy

      Can’t argue with that. It’s so frustrating, even more so, as a result. It could’ve been brilliant but, it just got a bit silly in the end. But I do really like tracks on it. I wonder if I could make a playlist from it that’s less than an hour and stick that that. He’s so talented, but sometimes some focus and self-control are the hardest one to master. A real missed opportunity.

  5. nolankane706

    There’s little doubt that there was broad excitement about this album from all the brothers. Why wouldn’t there be? C&L arguably has been the one of the blogs most liked albums that we’ve reviewed over the last 7 years and the work he did on the ‘Call Me By My Name’ soundtrack in my opinion are two of his best songs to date. As the hype for the album built we were teased with three very songs. We were all sold!

    The album sadly didn’t meet my self imposed expectations. As touched on by both Joey and Guy this is a very long album, most of his albums are. This feels longer though. There are too many times that a song goes down a rabbit hole of electronic experimentation. I can’t dislike Sufjan for experimenting. By no means is the first time he has messed with the electronic side of things. It just doesn’t add a positive dynamic to this album. We have all referenced Caribou in regards to perhaps inspiration. Caribou wouldn’t waste space on a song like Sufjan does over and over again on this album.

    Packing out an album with lots of tracks is what Sufjan does. There are always a few tracks that are around 6 minutes, but then there are ones that are just over 2. The fore-mentioned rabbit hole isn’t necessary. I’d challenge if he dropped 6 songs he would have got away with the more experimental songs as they wouldn’t have felt so monotonous. I’m sure we could create a list to drop; but more important this is what I would keep:
    – Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse
    – Video Game
    – Sugar
    – The Ascension
    – America
    An interesting point is even if this was released as a 5 song album it would be longer than most albums we have reviewed recently.

    Traditionally I try to avoid reading reviews ahead of writing my feedback on here. This time I went looking for some insight. Are we all being narrow minded with this? You have to do some digging to find reviews. I think many wanted to avoid negative thoughts and backlash. One padded out a bad review with stating that ‘The Ascension’ was the best song Sufjan has ever written.

    For me this is an album of highs and lows. I’m a bit disappointed over all but it is also to ‘Video Game’ which will be one of my favourite songs undoubtably of 2020. I’m not giving up on it yet and I look forward to our conversation on the album when we record the podcast.

  6. whyohwhyohwhy

    I haven’t even a single Sufjan track in my Best of 2020 list so far. I really want to but…. they don’t stack up, which is such a massive letdown. There’s some great tracks trying to get out those 5 minute things. They couldn’t escape.

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