Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.
So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.
Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.
Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.
“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.
I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.
I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.
“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.
Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.
Space has been an intriguing concept for musicians for an incredibly long time. (Cue David Bowie!) But rarely has it been as literal a fascination as it is with The Lovely Few, who have named five consecutive releases after heavenly bodies. The Geminids, a third in a series of releases named after meteor showers, features only one song that isn’t obviously named after something in space: opener “Les Anciens,” which is probably something awesome I’ve never heard of.
The Geminids, however, falls in the category of “things I have heard that are awesome.” The Lovely Few’s previous work drew some easy comparison to the bleep-bloop electronic pop of The Postal Service, but Mike Mewbourne and co. have opened up the sonic palette on this one to incorporate a lot more moods. The basic sound is still electronic-based pop, but prog, ambient, acoustic pop, Sufjan Stevens (especially The Age of Adz), and “space-rock” are all equal contributors to the album.
“Les Anciens” shows off this diversity of influences well, opening with a proggy, spacey keyboard line before adding in the signature clicks and pops of twee electronic beats. But all that gets wiped off the board as some tribal-esque beats come in. From there, Mewbourne and his collaborators start to layer sounds and vocals. Mewbourne’s voice is a perfect fit for this environment; it’s evocative but not theatrical, calm but not placid. It holds mystery in it. There are spaces to be explored and pondered in both his vocal delivery and songwriting.
The lyrical elements have a very Bowie-esque feel to them: are they metaphors, stories, or both? Tunes like “Venus” and “Castor and Pollux” beg me to read the whole album as a concept piece about a relationship; “Tyndarids” and “Mars” seem to be just about things in space, with some religious overtones. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing–I think there are levels of content here.
The Geminids is an intriguing album that requires investment. You can just listen to it once to play “spot-the-references” and take in the nice mood, but its true treasures are unveiled after multiple listens. The sleigh bells in “Gemini,” the rhythmic tension in “Prelude,” the pacing of “Phaethon 2”–these are all joys that aren’t immediately apparent. This isn’t an album with singles, really; the thing comes together as a whole. If you’re going on a late-night road trip, or perhaps watching the stars, The Geminids would be a fascinating and rewarding companion.
Independent Clauses has always been a strange beast. I never intended it to be a music blog; I wanted it to be the starting point of a Pitchfork-style website or a Paste-style magazine. So when we did things differently, my thoughts ran thus: “Who cares? We weren’t trying to be like them anyway.” That’s why we would run best-of lists in February, eschew posting MP3s and publish very long articles.
But as people go, so do dreams. Just like mortality isn’t such a terrible bag if you’re ready for it, neither is the death of dreams. Independent Clauses is never going to be the size of Pitchfork, Paste or even dearly departed Delusions of Adequacy (whom I have worked for and dearly love). And that’s perfectly okay.
To that end, it’s starting to look more and more like an MP3 blog over here, as I am accepting what Independent Clauses has become and embracing it. I’m considering getting some extra hosting for 2011 and throwing down d/ls to applicable tunes on posts. I’m also going to redesign this site as an mp3 blog, then not touch the aesthetics till 2012. I’m also going to start using the first person pronoun instead of the third person. It’s just me here now.
Also, I will cover more Pitchfork-level indie music than I have previously. Independent Clauses used to focus exclusively on undiscovered music, and I will still devote much of my time there. One does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, after all; there will just be more Frightened Rabbit and The Mountain Goats in the bath.
As part of the transition, I will be posting two best-of lists this year: one overall best of, and one of releases Independent Clauses reviewed this year. In the future, I will post one list. Without further adieu, here’s the overall top ten best releases this year.
4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire. Music world dominance: headlining Madison Square Garden, nominated for album of the year, taking number one on the Billboard Charts. Even if I didn’t like this album it would be in my top ten. It’s a pretty great album, though, even if it does have a few too many ripoffs of The National on it.
5. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem. Indie world dominance: James Murphy prophesied his title and then backed it up with tracks that made it so. Easily my favorite LCD album, and “You Wanted a Hit” is vying for “favorite LCD song” status.
6. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens. The man can do whatever he wants and still turn out pure gold. This is easily the most mind-blowing release of the year: it’s hard for me to listen to in heavy rotation because it’s so complex.
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 Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.