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.
So, another year ended and some great music from January the first to now. Aside from the albums of the month, there’s been some brilliant music, and here’s a bit of mine, so what’s yours?
Albums – (aside from our albums of the month, where my top 3 was AM, Pale Green Ghosts and Modern Vampires Of The City, but more of that later)…
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: I know this has got a lot of stick, but it’s been an essential album since it came out. It’s a change, it’s distorted, overlong in places (not in my opinion really), but it’s a step forward and brave doing it.
David Bowie – The Next Day: How do you manage to record an album in secret as one of the biggest artists in history and release it without anyone knowing? God knows, but even better is that it’s a great album. An elder statesman still on form, and some of his best work in 20 years.
John Hopkins – Immunity: Electronic album with emotion and atmosphere? This nailed it for me. I can’t wait to see him live.
James Blake – Overgrown: I did an air punch when this won the Mercury. It was a leap on from his first, and something that managed to combine the booming, hollow reverberation of dubstep with a very intimate vocal and melody. I wish I had 10% of this guy’s talent. It’s mesmerising music.
A Sagittariun – Dream Ritual: Another electronic pick, but one of the most inventive albums I’ve heard all year. Shades of so much of the music that first introduced me to clubs, but way more than that. (I wrote about it here: http://www.4clubbers.net/2013/music-reviews-161/).
Haim – Days Are Gone: Love it or hate it, it’s not hard to agree this is brilliant pop music. Bits of Fleetwood Mac, 70s soft rock, hip-hop (seriously) and modern guitars, there’s nothing else really like it about this year. And the hype was outlasted. I still love it, even if I’ve listened to it to death.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!: Another festival-inspired album, but more great pop music. A band that’s dismissed as being hipsters, but they can write a tune to remember. Their gig (hazily) at Glastonbury convinced me completely.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: Ok, so the hype was relentless, the single, Get Lucky, played almost (almost) to the point where it got too much, but there’s something great about an album that goes big on traditional production. Strings, horns, guitars, on a massive studio desk, and not Pro Tools. A complete contrast to most of music in the charts today, and therefore a GOOD THING. It’s not perfect, but then what is these days?
Luke Solomon – Timelines: An unsung hero of UK house music, this album was much more than 12 dancefloor tracks. It was personal, it was poignant (in the case of Lonely Dancer, Solomon’s tribute to Kenny Hawkes) and it was wandering, in fact it’s everything a house music album usually isn’t. That’s why I loved it (and I reviewed it here: http://www.residentadvisor.net/review-view.aspx?id=12961)
Atoms For Peace – Amok: What do Radiohead do when they’re not making their own music? If you’re Thom Yorke then you’re assembling a superband (Flea from the Chilis, Nigel Godrich and more) and making haunting, fractured music that skirts between electronic and guitars. It’s pretty unique – and acquired taste too – but their gig at the Roundhouse was incredible.
Midlake – Antiphon: A late entry but one of my favourite American bands. They may be minus their frontman now, but this is just as good as their previous work. Lush, ethereal, wistful, painful, and sensational.
As for the rest? Singles and gigs were many, and here’s my highlights:
Tons really. Mostly electronic, as that’s what I get and what I listen to, but there’s been a lot of great ones around. Obvious ones and less so.
Todd Terje – Strandbar: You’d have to have been a hermit to miss this, but what a track. Ubiquitous, and no less catchy after the 50th listen.
Bonar Bradberry – 3two5: 50% of PBR Streetgang, it’s a cut of grooving house that is both deep and energetic, and those vocals… we didn’t know Bonar had it in him!
Deadstock 33s – The Circular Path: One of many of Justin Robertson’s alter egos, this is a rollercoaster cut of acid-tinged house that makes you want to find a sweaty basement and stay there until it’s light. Genius.
Jammhot – Chrysalis: Leeds outfit debut on Saints and Sonnets sounded like 90s garage hijacked on a spaceship and brought back 20 years later. In a good way.
Dan Mangan – About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All: A great title, a total fairground of a record. Every time I listened to this, it felt like I was walking down a street to the closing titles of my own film. Superb, and cinematic.
Daft Punk – Get Lucky: Obvious, yes. Still brilliant though. However you may hate it, hearing this will always mean summer 2013.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie: The album may not have lived up to it, but this was the best thing he’s done in years and showed a lot of the noisy r’n’b nonsense of late just how it should be done.
Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey: Infectious, and better than Diane Young for me. A great album from a band I couldn’t really love before, but this changed my mind completely.
Ms Mr – Hurricane: I saw them for the first time at Glastonbury, and they were brilliant. This was the standout single from an album that helped fill an LCD-shaped hole.
Jagwar Ma – What Love: Another Glastonbury epiphany, like a sweaty Aussie rave build on the Stone Roses and Madchester’s hedonism.
Phoenix – Entertainment: Opener of a poptastic album from the French outift. The video’s almost as good (and odd) as the song itself.
David Bowie – Valentine’s Day: What a comeback, and what a record. A clever pun in the chorus, and a brilliant guitar hook. It’s like 1974 all over again.
Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know: Sheffield’s finest reborn as a west-coast power pop band. Many hated it. I loved it.
Haim – Don’t Save Me: I could’ve picked about five, but this was one of a great clutch of radio-friendly songs that you can’t stop singing. Seeing them in March next year can’t come too soon.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: The opening single of an album that’s divided opinion. But this was a statement of intent, and you can see James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it. Seven minutes plus of majesty that revealed more and more every listen.
John Grant: It may have toured Pale Green Ghosts, but both solo albums got an outing, and the fragile singer with the molasses voice proved even better live. Mesmerising.
XOYO Loves – The Coronet in November gave us DJs (Lindstrom, Waifs and Strays, Aeroplane and Greg Wilson) but it was live sets from Crazy P and Hercules and Love Affair that topped it.
The Reflektors – Ok, so Arcade Fire, but who cares? Seeing a band that big in a venue like the Roundhouse and them playing from their new album and back catalogue, while the whole crowd was dressed up like a circus…. I wish I could do gigs like this every week.
Despacio – not a gig specifically, but James Murphy and 2ManyDJs’ own disco in December was a glorious throwback to pre-superclubs, lasers, glitter cannons and jets. Just an amazing soundsystem and brilliant tunes, for 5 hours.
Glastonbury – So many bands, so many memories. Some missing ones too. Haim, Ratpack, Rolling Stones, Seasick Steve, Phoenix, Jagwar Mar, Ms Mr, Chic, New Build and all sorts of other shenanigans. Going back here reminds me there’s nowhere else that comes close to it, anywhere.