Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
At the time of this album’s release, we had endured a five-years without a major release by Sufjan Stevens. His last major production, Illinois, was a major critical and commercial success. It features stories of Stevens’ childhood, Jacksonville, banjos, and diverse musical textures relevant to the great American state. Within the first three minutes of The Age of Adz, you will realize that this Sufjan is not from Illinois, and maybe he hasn’t even been there before.
Watery explosions, heavy bass, and fluttering synths are some of the few electronic effects implemented on this LP. On the album’s second track, “Too Much,” Sufjan’s extremely fluid bass textures, “vrooms,” “zips,” and other various electronic noises are likely to turn the Illinois fans back to the mid-west. The title track, “The Age of Adz,” introduces itself with electronic beeps followed by a horn section so dark it could accompany a villain. This track is not made distinct by only its divisive musical style; the lyrics of this song demonstrate a tone that is made heavily present throughout the remainder of the record: Sufjan’s internal sufferings and eventual overcoming. Sufjan sings over a beautifully orchestrated choir and rapid snare patterns, “I’ve lost the will to fight/I wasn’t made for life,” but Sufjan keeps his head up saying the “[he’ll] give it all [he’s] got.” Sufjan gets real dark here, unlike the Sufjan that some of us know.
The gorgeous, “Now That I’m Older,” boasts choral perfection. This is the type of song that one could cry or to. Sweeping harps, trickling piano, and audible breathing, all underneath Sufjan’s automated yet vulnerable voice create a track to admire. The track analyzes Sufjan’s adolescent naiveté and misconceptions about love. Again, the song displays Sufjan’s introspective lyrical tendencies. He isn’t telling stories about unemployed workers of Michigan or road tripping anymore. He is delving into problems with relationships and their ultimate affect on his feelings of isolation and internal perceptions.
Sufjan’s internal sufferings are becoming quite clear by this point. As any Sufjan fan will know, he is a man of faith. In “Vesuvius,” he sings about his fight between his actions and their ultimate religious consequence. “Vesuvius,” the Pompeii volcano, is seen as a symbol of Sufjan’s challenges and their possible consequences. “Vesuvius are you a ghost/Or the symbol of light?” He does not know whether following the fire will lead to his death, or if it is a necessary risk he must to take in order to address his personal struggles. Sufjan calls to himself in the third-person, “Sufjan, follow your heart. Follow the flame, or fall on the floor.” Sufjan understands that following fire is not only a possible path to destruction, but a necessary step in facing psychological debt. Sufjan is lost. “Why does it have to be so hard?” he questions. “Vesuvius” expresses Sufjan’s message to us all: sometimes one must walk into the fire to find answers. Walking towards a Volcano that is supposedly agitated by Roman Gods may be difficult, but Sufjan claims, “I’d rather burn than be living in debt.”
Perhaps the song that gets the furthest into Sufjan’s dismayed and isolated mind is the second to last track, “I Want To Be Well.” The track’s unconventional melody and swirling flutes is characteristic of the chaos, isolation, and frustration of Sufjan’s psyche. Sufjan has spent the last 9 songs delving into the infinite abyss of his mind, and one can only take so much of his/her own mind (ask any shrink). “I want to be well,” begs Sufjan. That lyric can make the healthy feel sick. Or in this case, a person as mentally concerned as Sufjan can only help to be “well.” But not “great” or “dandy!” Sufjan would be happy with just “well.”
What makes The Age of Adz not just a way for Sufjan to selfishly whine about his emotions is that even he does not know his problems or needs. He is just as lost as we are. In fact, perhaps even more lost. In the epic twenty-five minute closing track, “Impossible Soul,” Sufjan and his gang chant optimistically of the future. We can do it! But then Sufjan closes the epic with, “we made such a mess together.” This lyric seems to defeat the purpose of Steven’s previously optimistic look at his psychological future, but it is in fact a method of explaining the difficulties in simply overcoming emotional stress and struggles. One cannot instantly overcome a previous vice or pain. In The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens opens his mind to listeners. The lyrics are intimate and intense, the music chaotic and cacophonous, but the overall meaning is positive. Stevens tells us that all pain can be relieved, but it may take a seventy-minute LP to do so.