Going into The Age Of Adz, Sufjan Stevens’ latest LP, I had mixed feelings to say the least. This being the first full-length album of new material released by Stevens since 2005’s Come On Feel The Illinoise, aka Illinois, I was certainly excited; yet he had left himself a large pair of shoes to fill after Illinois, which was massively successful and critically lauded, I only hoped that Sufjan’s feet hadn’t shrank in the past 5 years.
When the first tracks released from the album (“I Walked” and “Too Much”) hit the internet I rushed to give them a listen. Sufjan’s 60 minute All Delighted People having been released only about a week before hand, I expected the material on The Age Of Adz to be of a similar vein, which is to say that I expected it to sound as orchestrally rich and neo-folky as most Sufjan does. But that is not what was delivered; both “I Walked” and “Too Much” are rooted in glitchy electronic beats, and the rest of the album follows suit.
I have heard a lot of groaning from people who wanted another Illinois, and some saying that Sufjan has “reinvented himself.” I think it is important to remember that one of Sufjan’s earliest albums, Enjoy Your Rabbit, was an instrumental album made up of nothing but glitchy electronic music. So I don’t know if one can call this latest effort a “reinvention,” perhaps it would be more apt to call it a man returning to his beginnings. What is really important to take into consideration, however, is that it has been half a decade since his last album. To all of those people out there who wanted Sufjan to recreate Illinois five years after the fact, I say: “that was not a well thought out expectation, so stop being disappointed.” Obviously Sufjan has gone through some changes, who doesn’t over the course of 5 years?
I want to be clear, however, that this album is not a complete curve ball for Sufjan. Sure the majority of the album is based in electronic sounds, but there are still abounding strings and horns, the arrangements of which are nothing but normal to hear accompanying Sufjan’s voice. One great example of this is the mid album track “Get Real Get Right.” Very quick into the song woodwind and string runs, along with numerous hefty brass chords, are mixed in with the electronic ideas. Another example of this meshing of new styles with Sufjan’s old tricks is in the track “Vesuvius.” Honestly, with its chorus of vocalists repeating the same phrase over and over, this track sounds like it could have come right off of Sufjan’s old work; but with heavy use of electronics of course.
Perhaps a more important and larger change is not found in the music, but in the lyrics. As I highlighted, the music is not that far off for Sufjan, it is mostly just a change in instrumentations; but the lyrics are a large change for him. The Age Of Adz is not a large conceptual project like previous albums. The lyrics are not based in historical records, as are those on Illinois and Michigan. Instead, they are perhaps the most personal lyrics Sufjan has written in a long time; they deal with issues and events that he has actually faced. On an album about one of the 50 states, it would have been harder for him to work a phrase such as “I’m not fucking around,” into a track. But here, with its much more personally focused lyrics, he repeats the phrase for minutes in the second to last track: “I Want To Be Well.”
Of course, I have only touched the surface of what is important on this album. There is a lot to be addressed in its 1 hour and 15 minutes running time. With many tracks at around 6 to 8 minutes, and the final song (“Impossible Soul”) clocking in at over 25 minutes, there is a lot of material. The important thing is to give the album a careful listen, and remember that it is not Illinois, and it doesn’t have to be. This album proves that Sufjan Stevens is one of the greatest songwriters and musicians working today. He has his finger on the pulse of current music. In 2005 orchestral baroque-pop was a good choice, whereas glitchy electronic music works for 2010. But no matter what style he is channeling, Sufjan still makes it his own and keeps to his very personal brand.
WPGU Music Staff Rating: W-P-G-½
Key Tracks: “The Age Of Adz”, “Get Real Get Right”, “I Want To Be Well”
Recommended if you like: Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, and Iron & Wine.
W = Poor
W-P = Fair
W-P-G = Great
W-P-G-U = An instant classic!