Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Top Twenty Quest: Sufjan Stevens and The Age of Adz

November 29, 2010


It’s now been over a month since I saw Sufjan Stevens at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas, TX. The time gap is not for lack of interest in writing about the proceedings; the show was so overwhelming that it took a while for me to process it.

Only complicating the digestion of the show is its inseparability from The Age of Adz, from which the show pulled material heavily. Instead of the album being a teaser for the show or vice versa, the two create a total experience greater than either part. You can’t see Sufjan’s choreographed dances on the album; you can’t hear “I Want to Be Well” live. Both are necessary for a full understanding of what’s happening in both.

Much has been made of Sufjan’s recent drum machine obsession, and that is an important part of The Age of Adz, for sure. Sufjan wants to show the chaos that comes of a broken heart, and the brittle pounding of his digital music is a perfect medium for that. But it is important to note that he doesn’t just slam the listener with a post-apocalyptic slab of traumatized notes – he waits until track three for “The Age of Adz.” The first two tracks cannot be forgotten, lest the album become Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space redux. Not that appropriating Spiritualized’s masterpiece would be that much of a bummer, but Sufjan’s eyes are set higher than that.

And that’s why “Futile Devices” opens the album. More than just a way to ease hardcore Sufjanites into his new sound, it plays an essential role in setting the scene of the album. My first impression of the lyrics was that Sufjan is singing from the perspective of the girl who is leaving him; even though there are references to the person who would be Sufjan crocheting, I kind of expect Sufjan to be able to know how to crotchet. “I think of you as my brother, although that sounds dumb; and words are futile devices,” Sufjan laments at the close of the track. And what poor nice guy hasn’t heard a variant on those lines before?

After inserting some sounds like muted bombs dropping (nice touch!), Sufjan snakes his way into “Too Much.” It’s a nice post-Postal Service tune; a little heavy on the staccato drumming, but featuring a good melody and harmony lines that distinctly recall previous Sufjan work.

That’s the secret of Age of Adz, after all: it’s a regular Sufjan album when you strip away the digital stuff. It would be (mostly) possible to remove all the digital parts from the album, as there’s a remarkable amount of organic instrumentation throughout. I hope some aspiring DJ pulls it all out and gives us Age of Adz … Naked. It would be an interesting listen, but here’s what I expect we’d find if someone like Max Tannone did the project: Sufjan still writes amazing songs in much the same way he used to, regardless of the window dressing.

So is “Too Much” the giveaway that the digital stuff is a gimmick? No. That’s where the live performance comes in to make sense of things. Sufjan’s tour was a multi-sensory experience, not just a concert. “Too Much” live included a spastic video that isolated movements of Sufjan and others, bringing light to the robotic nature of motion when connecting motions are lost. Sufjan and two backup dancers performed a similar dance while singing, which was less spastic but more disorienting due to the odd nature of the planned movements.

Who hasn’t felt disjointed during a breakup? Sufjan points out the all-encompassing obsession with romantic love in our society in the lyrics of “Too Much,” then complains that because “there’s too much riding on that,” we’re all messed up when it goes wrong. Leave it to Sufjan to point out something so obvious that no one talks about it, and to make the point seem so clear that I can’t believe no one else is saying it as loudly.

But, as breakups are wont to do, things get worse. Sufjan noted during his performance that “Age of Adz” was “where I confuse heartbreak for the apocalypse,” and that’s exactly what the song sounds like. The art which graces the cover and fills the interior booklet correspond to this theme, as Sufjan told us (He also noted that it would have been artist Royal Robertson’s birthday, and that his widow was in the audience for the performance).

This and “I Want to Be Well” are the most jarring tunes on the album, and not just because they’re some of the most electronic-heavy ones. They touch a really deep nerve: It’s discomforting to hear Sufjan’s version of the break-upocalypse; the crushing melodrama is all too familiar and all too frustrating (irony: the girl I’m dating was with me at this show).

He follows it up with even more melodrama, as “I Walked” has some of the most raw (and, honestly, most high school-ish) lyrics he’s ever written. But the music in “I Walked” is one of the best musical efforts on the album, as it takes the songwriting style from previous work and effortlessly transitions it to electronic pop. As far as I can tell, there are no organic instruments in the recorded version of this song. Sufjan dances disjointedly in this song too, as well he should, for the same reasons as before.

Sufjan travels through various other breakup emotions: hindsight on “Now That I’m Older,” accusation on “Bad Communication,” longing for memories on “All for Myself” and self-motivation on “Get Real Get Right” and “Vesuvius.” When performed live, “Vesuvius” becomes even more dramatic than the recorded version; with an army of lights, Sufjan and his ten-piece band played accompaniment to the stage glowing red and orange in flickering patterns. They recreated the inside of a volcano, transforming the song from good to mind-blowing. In terms of sheer enjoyment, “Vesuvius” is the highlight from the show and the album; it is beautiful, powerful and moving.

Sufjan closes the album with “I Want to Be Well,” which has gotten lots of note for being the one where he says fuck sixteen times, specifically in the repeated phrase “I’m not fucking around.” Many Christians were sad. But as a Christian, I was not sad: these Christians condemning him for his display of emotion are not very honest with themselves. How many times have curse words burbled to the surface of terrible breakups? Lots. Especially inside people’s heads, which is where we are when we listen to Sufjan. Christian or no, it’s a hard thing to be broken up with, and sometimes it ends up with curse words.

Aside from that, it’s the biggest hopeful moment on the album, as Sufjan decides that he wants to get better from the breakup. He may not be getting better yet, but he wants to. He manages to say, “And I forgive you, even as you choke me!” That’s a pretty solid conclusion, wrapping around to the beginning of the album’s statements in “Futile Devices.” The mad rush of drums and vocals that is the last two and a half minutes of the song are some of the most heart-pounding on the album, because they’re simply cathartic.

It’s relieving that there’s a conclusion. If Sufjan didn’t have any finishing insight on what he saw, this whole album would be a hot mess (i.e. most breakup albums). But the lyrics, music and performances of Age of Adz all shed new light and commentary on the oldest pop music subject in the book.

We could have guessed this was coming, honestly. We got to hear about his home state, his religion, his childhood and his hobbies — why hadn’t we heard of his love life yet? Now we have. And boy, that was one massive breakup.

How bad was Sufjan’s breakup? Well, bad enough that he tells the whole story twice, because “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute trip through the same exact story we just heard. It has almost exactly the same emotional arc as the first 49 minutes of the album, albeit with an extra bit that didn’t make the previous songs: an emphatic dance party in the middle where he recounts the best parts of the relationship. During the live performance, he heavily autotuned himself and seriously got down with the dance moves. I mean, Kanye West had nothing on this dude. He had an upside-down visor with a long tail of silver streamers on it. He was rocking it. It was incredibly fun to watch.

Aside from the dance floor jamz, the mini-opus travels through many of the same moods and feelings that the previous album did. And it’s brilliant. There’s really nothing else that can be said about a twenty-five minute track that doesn’t feel nearly that long.

Sufjan fleshed out his live performance with a few non-Adz tracks; “Chicago” made an obligatory appearance, as well as opener “Seven Swans” and “That Dress Looks Nice on You.” He played a couple from All Delighted People EP, which were nice (which is pretty much my conclusion on that whole EP, as well). They were thoroughly enjoyed by the audience, but in comparison to the inspiring opuses of Age of Adz, they felt a bit pale. Anything that can make the life-affirming power of “Chicago” seem pale needs to be taken very seriously.

And, seriously, Age of Adz is about as good as pop music gets. Sufjan has pushed the envelope of his own groundbreaking sound to its outer limits and returned with previously unknown jewels from those reaches. It’s fitting that acoustic guitar opens and closes the album; it truly is a Sufjan Stevens record. It’s just a Sufjan record that reaches for the very stars that compose the video of his “Seven Swans” performance. He pulls them down, too; there’s not a clunker anywhere on the album. Individually and collectively, this album succeeds. With the live show augmenting it, it becomes downright awe-inspiring.

Will this be his sound from now on? Almost certainly not. This is a document of what he went through that one time, and he’s a very good documenter of what he goes through. Like Ben Folds said, “I do the best imitation of myself,” and Sufjan’s most recently necessary imitation of himself required apocalyptic booms and synthesizers. Who knows what will happen next? I highly doubt Sufjan does, and that’s the wonder of his artistry. He makes as he is: he lets us in on secrets. The Age of Adz is not in the future; it happened already to Sufjan Stevens.

And we get to see and hear as he sees and hears. Rare is the talent so grand as Sufjan’s, and rarer still is an album so completely successful as Age of Adz.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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