Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
By john taylor
October 12, 2010
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.