Thank god Sufjan Stevens abandoned his 50 States Project. At the rate he releases full albums — once every couple years — it would’ve taken him at least a hundred years to complete. And his latest album, The Age of Adz, is in my opinion his best work yet.
Sonically, The Age of Adz has a strong Romantic foundation, recalling thematic melodies of Berlioz and the operatic brawn of Wagner. And yet the album has an unabashedly modern flourish. Stevens has incorporated the most prevalent elements from mainstream and indie music. Twitchy loops that recall Kid A-era Radiohead texture the album from beginning to end; the chugging of synthesized drums and electronic coloring in “I Walked” and “Get Real Get Right” recall Animal Collective; and the level of auto-tune in the last track would make T-Pain blush. The modern aesthetic paired with Romantic form deliberately creates a tension between old and new.
The subject matter of Adz is less specific. Stevens has stepped back from cataloging state histories and specific stories to capture a larger dilemma — that there is no metaphysical order in the universe. The album’s title is a reference to the late Louisianan artist Royal Robertson, a self-proclaimed prophet and diagnosed schizophrenic whose work largely depicted the Apocalypse. The song “Vesuvius” is a plea to the volcano that slaughtered Pompeii. In the song, Stevens begs the volcano for his life, to which Vesuvius responds, “Sufjan, follow the path/ It leads to an article of imminent death.”
But the most surprising turn on the album comes in “I Want To Be Well.” In his six-album career, the soft-spoken Stevens has never dropped an f-bomb (in fact, he sounds a little dorky saying it), but there’s an undeniable aggression and conviction when he declares, “I’m not fuckin’ around.” Stevens feels frustrated and helpless with the world’s problems at large.
Adz ends on surprisingly positive notes. At the tail end of the final track, Stevens leads a chorus that repeats “Boy we can do much more together/ it’s not so impossible.” (Actually, the last lines are “Boy we made such a mess together,” but it’s more of a coda than a finale.) The happy ending may sound saccharine, but it is deeply satisfying after 70 minutes of crushing hopelessness.
Some critics have cast aside The Age of Adz as “self-indulgent,” but these early reviews brought to mind the recent flurry of anti-Jonathan Franzen pieces in response to his new novel Freedom. Freedom is a behemoth of a novel in both scope and ambition, one that tries to capture “the way we live now.” The most brutal takedown comes from B.R. Myers in The Atlantic, who cherry picks the worst lines from the book — god forbid a 556-page book have a few sloppy sentences — but refuses to engage with the work as a whole. Criticism of Freedom refuses to look at the work in its entirety, missing the point of the book. Franzen’s ambition prevents it from being a perfect book, but no less a great work of literature.
I can see critics of Adz taking a similar tact, seeing small imperfections and questionable choices as representative of the rest of the hour-and-a-half long album. The use of auto-tune in “Impossible Soul” will likely be a point of contention among listeners; the way Stevens distorts his voice 12 minutes into the song is unexpected, almost jarring.
Adz is less melodic than Stevens’s previous work, and at times, the album is downright difficult. The constant dissonance challenges listeners to stay focused — surely anyone listening to Adz at work will turn it off or tune out — but the album rewards patience. At no point is that clearer than on “Impossible Soul” when Annie Clark’s enchanting soprano repeats “don’t be distracted,” only to be buried by a tumult of electronic scratches and blips.
The ideas that Franzen and Stevens wish to capture are overwhelming, and their works are appropriately overwhelming in form.
But the trend is different between books and albums. Freedom is just one of a handful of books that signal the return of long novels. In a piece titled “Is Big Back?” for The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg identifies the return of page-heavy fiction as a reaction to the prevalence of short-form reading. “The current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader,” he writes.
Despite the fact that albums are no longer restricted by physical limits, we’ve seen a growing trend of shorter albums and a focus on singles. But Adz shows that at least Stevens believes in the patient listener. He is perhaps the most prolific songwriter of the decade, at least in terms of output. Stevens writes songs as long as EPs, EPs as long as albums, and albums as long as whatever it is that comes after albums. The Age of Adz could be the evolution of the album as we know it.