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Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz

Our reviewer isn't a huge fan of Sufjan's left turn.

After dabbling in side projects, countless collaborations, remixes and a short film, Sufjan Stevens emerges from the shadows for the first time in five long years with a brand new studio album proper. Keeping in line with his love for all things quirk, the aptly titled The Age of Adz releases in physical form to the hands of drooling indie kids today.

With banjos, horn sections, cryptic spirituality, and songs about Abraham Lincoln, Superman and John Wayne Gacy Jr., Stevens won the hearts of many a critic and hipster alike, climbing to the top of many 2005's best of lists with his critically acclaimed effort, Illinois. Since then, Stevens has removed himself from the public eye in an effort to ... take a break? Reinvent himself? No one is entirely sure. It probably isn't a stretch to suggest that Stevens himself is equally unsure.

Often, talented individuals are their own worst enemy. As favor and reputation swell in the public eye, the pressure is to show maturity in your sound without alienating your devoted fans. It's a terrible place to be, and many artists slip up, making rash decisions in a last-ditch effort to be “different.” Talented as he is, Stevens unfortunately falls prey to this trap. The end result is a delicious misfire, somewhere between the eclectic self-indulgence of The Avalanche and the adventurous synths comprising Enjoy Your Rabbit.

Delicate opener “Futile Devices” serves as a brief, gentle nod to fans of his past work, while the title may have fans wondering what Stevens thinks of his acoustic history. Before the listener is able to make up his or her mind, “Too Much” assaults with a barrage of bleeps, crisp drum kits and icy textures. While the joy and orchestral flourishes of past efforts such as “Chicago” remain intact below a sea of zeros and ones, what follows sounds like a robotic interpretation of those efforts. With “too much” happening in the background, the electronic elements are more distractions than anything else. They are never given a chance to resonate or breathe.

“I'm not [expletive] around,” Stevens boasts on “I Want To Be Well,” one of the album's many moments of paranoia. In any other context, profanity would be something truly surprising from Stevens. Here, it sounds tasteless and reeks of desperation. Even worse, Stevens sounds depressed on the bulk of the record. “I would talk, but I know you won't listen to me,” he mourns on “Bad Communication." Though Adz never reaches Kanye West levels of self-examination, many numbers sound therapeutic. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” he reminds himself on “Vesuvius.” Perhaps Stevens should consider signing up for a Twitter account?

Ironically, “[expletive] around” is exactly what Stevens is doing in Adz. On unnecessarily long closer “Impossible Soul,” Stevens decides, among other things, to Auto-Tune his voice. Instead of being “brave” and “different,” it's a hilarious miscalculation. At once, this choice sums up Adz and its kitchen-sink approach: novel, baroque, but not memorable.

On behalf of his countless fans, of which I myself am one, I would like to offer the following:

Sufjan, we love you. We ask that you stop feeling the need to impress us with “innovation.” With four versions of the same song, with five album Christmas box sets and films about the BQE. Just do what you love. Do what you know. Take narrative to music, as you have done in the past, and have done so well. And for goodness' sake, bring the banjo back out of the closet. You can have your sanity back, and we can have our Sufjan back. Trust me. It'll be better for all of us.

129 Comments

Doug Jolly

77

Doug Jolly reviewed…

Thank you, John, for writing an honest review. I knew you were going to get flamed by all the Sufjan fanboys who think he can do no wrong, and would think that an album full of Stevens making farting noises would qualify as great art. Sufjan IS a great artist, but he is as capable as anyone else of making a bad record, and we need reviewers to be honest enough to call him on it when it happens. Adz isn't horrible, but it's not great, and I appreciate that you were willing to endure the howls of "heresy!" from his devoted minions to tell us the truth.

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Dave reviewed…

I'm glad you all "love" this album blindly because Pitchfork tells you too. This is the best review of Adz on the web, and if you don't like it, go pretend like you like the album some more so you can facilitate your hipster image and get more indie cred.

Sooner or later Sufjan will tell us we've all been Punk'ed- that this wasn't a real album, just a bunch of crap he released to prove a point- that fanboy hipsters will love anything because of a label, name, or review.

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Philomarium reviewed…

Age of Adz is incredible.

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Acommoncrisis reviewed…

Booooo! At your review. One of the best Refreshing albums ive ever heard.

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Jason L reviewed…

I see what you are saying, but here's the deal..
First of all, the devoted christian listeners won't like it, because he was their poster child. He has some tracks in the past so dripping with Gospel that we all had to fall in love. He was a Christian artist that wasn't a part of the reactionary drivel that makes up CCM. But he didn't ask to be that. He is just an artist who knows the lord. So what if he cusses? Perhaps he's questioning things. Don't we all? Shouldn't we all? He probably dropped some acid(I don't recommend it). That'll make perspective change a bit. It's spiritually confusing, so the music reflects it.He's building landscapes to carry melodies. It's all textures. That's the way electronic music works. You have to feel it as much as you hear it. You can't walk into a forest looking for big macs and free wi-fi and you can't walk into the age of adz looking for c'mon feel the illinoise.I know that you all want him to be a quirky folk artist forever, but he's innovative. why not let him innovate? Some albums aren't meant to be digested in a single listen. They require time, devotion, and an open mind.Part of the beauty of a cohesive album is you get to look through the composer's eyes into their world.

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