Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
There’s something odd about the opening synth line on “Video Game,” eerily reminiscent of Rick Astley’s famous “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Sufjan Stevens thankfully isn’t rickrolling us for 80 minutes straight on his latest release, but any hint of commercialism is whisked away on this track as Stevens rescinds his allegiance as spokesperson for unmentioned subcultures who dare to make him into a puppet or a savior.
And this is certainly an admirable thesis, were things left simply at that. “Video Game,” even with its poetic sting, is a fun, catchy track. Certainly, this is a reversal of the moody minimalism of Carrie & Lowell. Synths and drum machines take place of guitar and banjo. Things are perhaps closer to The Age of Adz in some respects.
But it’s ultimately the unshapely combination of pretense, cliché, and egregiously-sleepy tracks that does the album in.
Stevens finds a way to get the worst of both worlds, were such a thing to exist. It’s clear many of his sentiments are meant as jabs at pop culture, rather than an embrace of it, but sheltered under the title of The Ascension, the result is frankly just odd. Sure, Sufjan Stevens has always been one to experiment or tinker with wordplay—but for an album that carries so much rage and political sentiment, it is incredibly easy for the listener to get lost in obfuscated expressions of love and droning, glitchy instrumental passages that remind me of a slow work day on a Friday after not being able to sleep all night (not that I speak from experience). The Ascension at best leaves people guessing what Stevens is trying to say; at worst, it loses their attention completely.
I am the first to defend the album format, and I certainly think we lose narrative in EPs and singles. But at the same time, The Ascension is a demanding listen. It’s an astonishing 80 minutes of hit-and-miss tracks. It’s a large time commitment to spend listening to an album, especially one that does not make this process easy. And the average listener will more than likely pick out a few songs to focus on and discard the rest. It is simply too unbalanced and too long to be enjoyed in its entirety. This is a sad reality for such a large body of work, but it’s the truth.
The Ascension is decidedly uncommercial, even in spite of Stevens’ growing fanbase. But even in his rejection of the mainstream, lines like “Come on baby, give me some sugar,” “I wanna love you,” and “Come run away with me” serve as straightforward pop sentiments. It doesn’t have enough mainstream appeal, but it’s perhaps a bit too lyrically-lacking to feel “high art.” Instead, it’s over an hour of some strange digitized identity crisis that will wear you out quickly. It’s this lack of identity that makes it challenging to decide how listeners should respond to these tracks.
That’s not to say every moment is a nuisance; indeed, “Video Game,” “Sugar,” and “America” were all solid singles. “Ursa Major” and the industrial-influenced “Death Star” are noteworthy as well. The album’s biggest grievance is how Stevens manages to talk a lot while arguably saying little. Carrie & Lowell was intimate; you could see yourself at the bedside of his dying mother and feel the ache of grief as he reminds us “We’re all gonna die.” But here, it’s hard to know what to feel or think. And while I fully support artists who play off subtlety, there is just enough specificity here that it feels like we’re supposed to grasp something.
The Ascension is a lofty album with lofty ambitions and a lofty title. It is an album, arguably, with a purpose. But somewhere in its many twists and turns, its quips and one-liners, Sufjan Stevens’ message becomes victim to the very culture he is trying to defy. It’s a would-be magnum opus were the songs a bit more balanced and the mood a bit less tranquilizing. But despite its flaws, a few of the tracks are instant classics in the Sufjan Stevens catalog. “America” is looming and epic in particular. The album just tends to lack a singular identity across its fifteen tracks. And while that’s an understandable challenge, it’s bound to segment listeners into fans of individual tracks rather than marathon runs through the album as a whole.
Founder’s 2 Cents: Sufjan has released an album with a lot and a little going on at the same time. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable listen, albeit a bit of a one trick pony. It feels like a natural, sadder follow up to The Age of Adz. This is an album that will have longevity for me but only work for me when the mood strikes. The mood for this album will hit me more often than Carrie & Lowell, but the payoff is greater for the latter. “Video Game” is a bop though.