Sufjan Stevens has always been a bit of a maximalist. This is demonstrated in his outlandish stage attire, lush orchestration, and eccentrically verbose song titles, as well as his penchant for constructing gargantuan and cacophonous soundscapes, the latter of which he returns to for ‘The Ascension’. In the singer-songwriter’s own words, “the folk idiom [of predecessor, ‘Carrie & Lowell’] is a great platform for storytelling and narrative”.
Here, after being restricted from using his Brooklyn recording studio, Stevens is ironically left with nothing but a drum machine and a keyboard. Furthermore, many of the songs derive their titles from platitudes. Stevens interrogates them and attempts to find solace in such sloganeering via a heady stream of consciousness.
Another, Goodbye To All That borrows from an essay by Joan Didion of the same name and this is where we’re going to start. After the best part of two decades in the Big Apple, Stevens, like Didion, leaves for pastures new, up-state to the Catskills be exact. Despite re-engaging with the countryside and its terrain, Goodbye… is all glitchy and shuffling electronica. Attaching itself onto previous track, Death Star, things charge forward at the same BPM. Nevertheless, Stevens’ falsetto anchors Goodbye… as the fun industrial dance freakout of the former shifts to make way for something altogether more shimmering and euphoric.
It’s part of what made the Michiganian so adept at scoring films and dance symphonies, building around climaxes and capturing moods. What makes ‘The Ascension’ so astounding is that he manages to sound so accessible while doing so. This can be attributed to pop-leaning sensibilities, sure, particularly in his cadence. Stevens somehow manages to be expansive without being exhaustive, however. Flamboyant without being kitschy or saccharine. Impressionable while also being singular.
Lyrically, while ‘The Ascension’ is underscored by three esoteric philosophies (theosophy, anthroposophy and Confucianism), as well as his own orthodox Christianity, Stevens’ songwriting is open-ended and carries enough vernacular to appeal to a confused and disenfranchised world at large. It is both insular and outward.
On the slow build-up of Tell Me You Love Me, Stevens sings longingly, “Right now, I could use a change of heart/Or a kiss before everything falls apart/Can you tell me this love will last forever?” Because who doesn’t want that reassurance? Elsewhere, some corners of music media have labelled ‘America’ (the sprawling lead single and curtain closer) as his breakup with God. But can’t a guy appear despondent as his home country gets depleted on two fronts without having his core belief system drawn into question?
Others have called his songwriting too abstract. I defy you to come up with an answer to 2020 in song. An existential electronic album is just another vehicle for Stevens to voice his anguish. While perhaps more assertive in his essays, isn’t it comforting that herein is a man with such a strong moral compass just as conflicted as you or me?
Stevens’ voice is often equal parts purity and equal parts cyborg, most notably on Lamentations. Yet it is always intimate. On the title track, meanwhile, Stevens is confessional, not didactic or “bossy and bitchy” as he describes it. He laments, “When I am dead and the light leaves my breast/Nothing to be told, nothing to?confess/Let?the record show?what I couldn’t quite confess/For by?living for myself I was living for unrest.”
The Ascension is the album’s keynote speech, a culmination of questions and self-aberration. America is one final plea to save him from the squalor. Oh what a shame about the lack of live music. An ‘Ascension’ tour has the makings of being the greatest spectacle yet. In Video Games comes a cautionary tale against worshipping false idols and getting caught in the rat race for approval online… and one of Stevens’ most infectious singles yet.
‘The Ascension’ is the opus 2020 needed and while it doesn’t rank as Stevens’ best offerings, it’s another of a number to pass with distinction.