Epic. Intense. Pessimistic. These are words not typically associated the music of Sufjan Stevens, not since 2010's The Age Of Adz at least, but can be used to describe his sprawling new masterpiece The Ascension.
In the five years since his last record - Carrie and Lowell - Stevens has cemented himself as one of the world's most compelling singers and songwriters, building on that record's dulcet and hushed tones with single releases and a major musical contribution to the 2017 Luca Guadagnino film Call Me By Your Name.
Once a banjo-wielding Christian famous for mythologising the USA set on making an album for every state, Stevens now expresses his discomfort with the country using dark and glitchy electronica. "I'm ashamed to admit I no longer believe," he sings on lead single and closing track 'America'." He actually wrote it six years ago in sessions for Carrie and Lowell, but he shelved it thinking it was "too bitter." Some fans speculate he's breaking up with God, but he has since explained it isn't a religious song at all. Instead it articulates his crisis of faith about his identity as an American and his relationship to their culture, which is clearly diseased right now. It's overtly a protest song.
Stevens' world-weary state and resentment refracts kaleidoscopically across the 15 songs on The Ascension, totalling an hour and 20 minutes of music. Yes, just like isolation, it's long and exhaustive, yet it demands multiple, active listens and, ultimately, it unfolds beautifully and is well worth the effort. There's an endless well of potent ideas, modalities and critical interpretation lying beneath the album's complex layers. Stevens addresses love, death and drugs with a call to defy modern society's materialism, lies and idol worship.
“I’m speaking to you,” Stevens says. “You are the subject of this record. You, the listener. I think I’ve earned the right to be didactic and preachy. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and how many songs have I written about my own personal grievances [with] judgment against myself, self-deprecation, and sorrow? I was like, No, I don’t want to write another song about my dead mother. I want to write a song that is casting judgment against the world.”
It's an intimidating album and one we could have ever expected in 2020, but it is the one we deserve. Arguably, The Ascension is his most ambitious work to date, certainly his most ambitious. It very well might be the sign of a new era of Sufjan Stevens to come.
SUFJAN STEVENS' THE ASCENSION IS THE WAXX LYRICAL OCTOBER RECORD OF THE MONTH.