Common complaints about Sufjan Stevens: he’s too pretentious (and therefore too boring), too full of his own grand ambitious concepts, too far-reaching, almost pompous with his revelations and his religion. But I believe it is for those very reasons that he attracts such a large audience.
His ability to frame songs on this type of epic scale appeal to the part of our psyche that wants our own stories to be vast and consequential. Records like Seven Swans, Michigan, and Illinois reinforce the idea that there is a point to the drama, that it will eventually move towards a greater meaning; that you will have profound epiphanies and be able to find your way in life based off these moments.
These albums have often been my own personal comfort food.
Therefore, I wasn’t prepared for The Age of Adz. I may have even melodramatically declared to a friend, “This is devastating!” as though it was an affront raining on my Sufjan Stevens parade. Thankfully, I had the good sense to put it aside for a while before choosing to write my opinion down. Especially as it’s becoming one of my favorite albums of the year. (In no small part because I was rather bound and determined to like it, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
One of my major issues with The Age of Adz is simply that it’s not pretty. I know this sounds like such an oversimplification, but at the end of the day it’s not music that is easy to listen to. It’s cacophonous, it beeps and whirls at you. The 25 minute “Impossible Soul” is split down the middle by auto-tuned statements. Sufjan Stevens swears at you! It’s repetitive, it’s not cohesive, upon first listen it appears to be a jangly, jittery mess.
As was its intention. Which is the entire crux of the album that I was failing to understand. SUFJAN STEVENS DOESN’T REALLY GIVE A SHIT WHAT I THINK ABOUT IT.
This is HIS album, about his year long struggle with illness and how he’s come to realize that his penchant for story-telling might be a complete lie; there are no great proclamations to be had. There is often only confusion. For a notoriously reclusive artist, he has opened up his mind and said, “You want to know what it’s like in here? Fine. There you go. It’s awful. It’s filled with so much noise that half the time I can’t think straight. It certainly ain’t pleasant.”
And with this unburdening, there is also a sense of exuberance. He’s been honest, he has rid himself of his former fallacies. He can do whatever he likes. (You listening Kanye?) He can dance the robot on frickin’ Jimmy Fallon if he wants to! He’s not fucking around! Or rather… he is. But he’s serious about it!
If it sounds like I am being facetious, I am just the tiniest bit. The way I’ve come to love this album is to place it within the context I am discussing above; to watch an artist for whom I hold great affection rid himself of sentiment is, at the very least, incredibly interesting. (If not somewhat disruptive to the narrative I had created around him in my own head.) I chose to admire its bravado and confidence, its willingness to be a mess, rather than dismiss it because it doesn’t fit into my idea of what it means to listen to Sufjan Stevens.
I put an incredible amount of effort into The Age of Adz. I’ve listened to it over and over again, basically willing myself to like it. But I’m happy to have spent so much time with it, happy to be able to enjoy it now.
I can’t imagine what we will hear from Sufjan in the future after listening to this. And I can’t help but admire the lengths to which he will go to try and rid himself of expectation.