now that i’m older: sufjan stevens rewarding years of repeated listens

The Age of Adz, 2010, Asthmatic Kitty

What’s the point of reviewing a five-year-old record?

I’m convinced that record reviews really shouldn’t take place for days, weeks, even months after a record is released. Let’s be honest, though, the only reason a record is *ahem* afforded pre-release copies to critics is so that record companies can get free promotion for their products. Music journalism isn’t so much journalism as it is thinly-veiled marketing. Payola, even. (Freeola, perhaps, would be more fitting.) I suppose we could dispense with the modifiers altogether, but that’s another conversation for another day.

Some outfits don’t handle success particularly well; The Flaming Lips put out The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 1999 and 2002, respectively, and have released uneven, even listless, records ever since. (My argument is that the FLips never figured out who they were after Ronald Jones left the band due to mental illness, but again, another conversation for another day.) It’s the best example that comes to mind of a band that toils for years, hits paydirt and immediately proceeds to spiral out of their minds.

After becoming king of the hipster hill with Illinois, or, more cheekily, Come on, feel the Illinoise!, Sufjan Stevens put out a multi-volume Christmas record, a collection of B-sides that might have been better than Illinois actually was, a soundtrack for a stretch of road (The BQE) and then, seemingly out of nowhere, dropped an EP and LP on everyone in 2010: All Delighted People and Adz.

Stevens, a multi-instrumentalist with a hushed tenor and unafraid of unleashing a falsetto that not only conveys earnestness but emotional gravity–to be sure, a rarity in our day–dispensed with the folky trappings and long song titles of previous records and put out an eleven song, heavily-electronic, even-more-heavily-lyricized monster of a record.

 I ordered it when it was released, put it on and, like so many other listeners, was suckered in by the at the time heretofore familiar-sounding ‘Futile Devices’.

Then, Stevens’ rope-a-dope happened. And, indeed, it was ‘Too Much’. Being an idiot, I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t Sufjan Stevens! What the crap?’ Because, clearly, a listening audience knows what the artist is supposed to be doing. I might as well have wrested the axe from Pete Seeger and sought to cut Dylan’s cables myself.

Well, those asinine assumptions severely polluted the accessibility of the album for me. I’d give it a try every so often, and be utterly unable to connect with it. I had people tell me they loved the record, and I’d just shrug and say, ‘I don’t get it.’ And, that’s perfectly OK, provided that one does not get it for reasonable reasons. There are records I sincerely don’t get.

And what doubts were raised by ‘Too Much’ were heightened by the titular track, with its opening synthetic bombast and choral orchestration. And, later, to hear the profane refrain  of ‘I Want to Be Well’ ad nauseam, from a professed Christian, well, that was tough to reconcile.

Yet, there were songs that were truly triumphs in their own right. ‘I Walked’ and ‘Now That I’m Older’ still rank amongst the best back-to-back tracks of any record I’ve heard.

And, now that I’m older, on the other side of any number of major life events and serious personal valleys, it crept into my listening rotation about a month ago, and it’s played through regularly for the past week.

I finally get it: The Age of Adz is, for me, the ultimate ‘rewards repeated listens’ record.

Stevens is, for an emotionally-unstable listener, uncomfortably frank, particularly after only teasing at his personal narrative in prior records, deferring largely to the stories of places and others. I don’t know that Adz is an autobiographical record–then again, everything an artist produces, is in a sense autobiographical–but there is some undeniable dark night of the soul-type introspection going on. Yet, the record never broods or betrays a wallowing sense of self-pity. Then there’s the arrangements: Stevens has crafted his share of layered productions: much of the instrumentation is his own, not unlike Brian Wilson’s work with Pet Sounds. The synth work, melded with acoustic instruments and layers of gorgeous vocals sounds stunning in headphones or a decent rig at home. (It having been the soundtrack to my work week, suffered under the burden of digital streaming and further diminished quality in a substandard headset.

The stereo production is used judiciously–what is it with Michigan artists and their insistence on stereophonics?–but I can’t help but wonder what the record might have sounded like in mono. It’s like wondering what the ’27 Yankees might have done with better starting pitching: futile speculation.

The record takes on an operatic dimension as it progresses, weaving the existential working out of one’s salvation–however that presents itself–against Stevens, the protagonist, and a chorale that seems to act as both conscience and spiritual guide, often unafraid to affirm and urge caution within the same track. As the record progresses, it’s clear that the artist has done something extraordinary: elevating the hipster record to artistic and intellectual transcendence. The inner conflict is palpable, the dueling natures of humankind flow and spasm as, well, we are wont to do. Where one might be understandably startled and even offended at the dual, layered repeated lines of ‘I want to be well’ with ‘I’m not fucking around’, who can say they have never felt the rage that comes with being afflicted along with the earnest desire to be made whole? It may be crude, but it’s honest in a way that does not trivialize sitz im leben. Profanity often cheapens emotion, or puts ignorance on display, particularly in music. That’s a risk the artist takes and, for Stevens, it paid off. Not everyone can do that, and not everyone should try.

The record concludes with a 25-minute operetta of its own, ‘Impossible Soul’. Others have said that one could reasonably listen to the first four or five minutes and be satisfied. I agree, but as a movement of music, it’s a remarkable work worth devoting the full length of the track. Understanding the record as a pseudo-opera makes it much more understandable than as a part of a pop or rock record. Something quite different is happening here.

If the listener is in any way emotionally compromised, The Age of Adz will exploit that compromise and force one to do some searching in the darker corners of the soul. Art will do that, and it will do what it will to bring about catharsis.

In this case, it took five years for it to do that for me. It also happens to be one of the finest records I’ve ever heard.

Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz


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