The new Sufjan Stevens album is a musical masterpiece that blends analog and digital sounds as it reflects on love and loss, life and death, humanity and divinity. The Age of Adz is both a bittersweet breakup album and a mantra-filled meditation on faith. Despite snatches of pain, doubt, and frustration, the record ultimately celebrates the joy of living and the possibility of emotional and spiritual rebirth.
The Age of Adz, streaming on NPR until its Oct. 12 release, is an indie rock opera that starts with a two-minute overture and ends with a 25-minute coda. As in the past, Stevens combines the warmth of his voice with a lush landscape of strings, horns, woodwinds, and a chorus of female singers. Yet there’s no sign of his signature banjo and not much of the guitar and piano found on prior albums: Michigan (2003), Illinois (2005), and the recent All Delighted People. Instead, electronic drums and synthesizers lend the record a hypnotic vibe somewhere between dance and trance. This new sound fuses the angst of Elliot Smith, the electronic edge of the Postal Service, and the cheery melancholy of Paul Simon into an orchestral rock rendition of religious ecstasy.
Sufjan Stevens, Too Much
As crossword puzzles aficionados know, an adz is a bladed tool used to carve wood. Given Stevens’ forays into fantasy, it seems appropriate that he pronounces the word as “Oz.” Specifically, The Age of Adz alludes to the work of schizophrenic Royal Robertson, whose illustration adorns the album cover. Robertson’s apocalyptic artwork fits the sound: 72 minutes of auditory hallucinations, where Stevens adds and subtracts layers of voices, instruments, and sound effects. One song even speaks to an internal conflict common to schizophrenics: the fear that they do not exist.
Sufjan Stevens, Age of Adz
If Stevens takes pains to vary the music, his hallmark lyrical device is reiteration. Phrases repeat like mantras and establish themes such as inadequacy and hyper-abundance (“Too Much”), regeneration (“Get Real, Get Right”), and seriousness of purpose (“I’m not fucking around”). Beyond catchiness, the technique suggests prayer, as on an invocation to the volcano that destroyed the Roman city of Pompei: “Vesuvius/Fire of Fire/Fall on me now/As I favor the ghost.”
Sufjan Stevens, Vesuvius
On his last album, All Delighted People, Stevens stole snatches from “Sound of Silence.” The Age of Adz pays Paul Simon a more subtle homage. Like Simon the solo artist, Stevens shifts his voice between talky and falsetto. And just as Simon fills out his sound with backup singers (e.g. The Dixie Hummingbirds, Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Stevens uses female vocalists as something between a Greek chorus and a church choir.
Given his fascination with history, geography, and religion, Stevens has often seemed older than his years. Now 35, he owns his age on “Now That I’m Older,” and repeatedly acknowledges mortality and the importance of making the most of life. The title track, an eight-minute ode to “eternal living,” declares: “When I live, I’ll give it all I’ve got.” And when life throws him lemons, Stevens makes a Tom Collins, determined to triumph over adveristy. “I Want to Be Well” references the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” and phrases the title so it sounds like: “Well I want to be/Well I want to be.” Such ontology adds to the album’s undercurrent of spirituality. Many songs seem to address both a lover and a divine power, a time-tested technique found in the Psalms and the Sufi poetry of Rumi.
Sure, Stevens still uses vocabulary like “epithet” and “self-effacing.” Still, the straightforwardness of these songs is a long way from the quirky ethnography of Michigan and Illinois. Indeed, The Age of Adz derives its power from its transparency, from the first words (“It’s been a long long time/since I memorized your face”) to the last (“Boy, we made such a mess together.”)
The Age of Adz ends with “Impossible Soul,” a 25-minute conclusion that unifies the album’s musical and lyrical themes. The song starts with Stevens singing over a keyboard and then increases in intensity, volume, and complexity over a swirl of instruments, drumbeats, and backing vocals. The mood morphs over multiple sections, including a sequence of choral cheerleading that recalls “Give Peace a Chance” or the last number in a Broadway musical. At one point, Stevens alters his voice with electronic pitch correction. While the effect known as Auto-Tune often sounds like kitsch (Peter Frampton, T-Pain) or retro irony (Chromeo), Stevens makes his robot voice ache. By the time “Impossible Soul” fades into silence, an epic journey has ended, ironically, with a sense of possibility.