Sufjan Stevens Embarks on a Quixotic Odyssey With ‘The Ascension’
On his 2005 single “Chicago,” Sufjan Stevens sang, “I fell in love again / All things go, all things go.” He goes on to sing about driving to Chicago and New York with a quixotic conviction, mentioning, “We sold our clothes to the state / I don’t mind, I don’t mind.” Since then, Stevens has followed whims with the most ambitious type of artistic abandon. He reinvented himself with the choreographed, largely electronic odyssey of 2010’s “The Age of Adz,” and collaborated with Nico Muhly and the National’s Aaron Dessner on 2017’s “Planetarium,” a pop-classical conceptual album about the solar system. Earlier this year, he released a primarily ambient work, “Aporia,” with his stepfather Lowell Brams. Now, on “The Ascension,” his first solo album since 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens draws from the wide range of sounds that he has explored since his debut. A sprawling, expansive mesh of electronic, ambient, pop, and indie rock, the record finds Stevens worlds away from the banjo playing, wide-eyed hero that won hearts when he first emerged. Yet, the spirit behind the music is remarkably consistent. Romantic idealism is at the core of the new album, and it drives Stevens as it drove him to Chicago and New York all those years ago. The difference is that this time it drives him away from America altogether. Stevens was vocal and passionate in his disapproval after Trump’s election. A professed “Orthodox Christian,” he went on a tirade about what he saw as a hypocrisy in American values. On his latest work, he rejects the ways of the world, and calls for listeners to join him on odyssey to a better place.
Opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” is a haunting trip-hop start. Ghostly choirs and synth strings hover and blur with a discordance just kept at bay, expressing the sense of being at the very edge. Stevens’ lyrics are in line with this, as he surrenders his passions with the titular plea. By the end, an alarm has gone off, and the choral vocals distort and ascend with climactic urgency until cut short, with only a few placid synth tones remaining. These ring out on “Come Run Away With Me,” a track that could hardly be more new age. This time, Steven makes the offer, repeating the title over a soothing, gauzy backdrop. The whole affair wouldn’t seem out of place on the definitive ‘90s “Pure Moods” compilation.
The sweeping pads and overall ambience continue onto “Video Game,” but take on a new feel, with a steady beat running throughout. Insistent snares strike like the workings of an unyielding machine, as Stevens politely protests its grind, repeating, “I don’t wanna” in the most la di da manner, and finally finishing, “I don’t wanna play your video game.” Anthemic in its message and undeniably catchy, it’s a triumph of a single. “Lamentations” echoes the opening track, with Stevens entreating, “Take me into all of your life” with a half-whispered vulnerability. There are definite Nine Inch Nails undertones, as well pitch-shifted vocals and percussion that could have been in a Burial track. Like the opener the music intensifies to truly dramatic heights.
Romantic implorations continue on “Tell Me You Love Me,” with a chorus that recalls Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” Considering Stevens’ dance routines ever since “The Age of Adz,” this shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. By the end, the whole layered mix has grown distorted, and one can imagine a rather deranged Stevens declaring his feelings from mountaintops. Indeed, “Die Happy” is consistent, with a sole line of “I wanna die happy.” Again, Trent Reznor echoes abound. A cloudy lullaby evolves into a mix of wheezing, detuned sounds that make for the wildest sonic excursion yet. On his backing vocals, Stevens sounds surprisingly like Thom Yorke, an influence that extends onto the next track, “Ativan,” although this time not as much in Stevens’ voice as in his musical stylings. Everything from the stuttering drums to the vocal melodies sound as if taken directly from one of Yorke’s solo albums. Lyrically, Stevens personifies the sedative Ativan, singing, “Tranquilize me and revise me, Ativan / My leading woman.” Ironically, the track ventures outward from the ambience of earlier songs, into ravey noise, until condensed into strings in the outro.
Stevens next looks to the cosmos, and goes full Massive Attack on “Ursa Major,” with sitar twangs among the wiggling, mutating sounds, and breathy, hypnotic vocals that give way to a soulful slant in the chorus. He doesn’t stray too far from his lyrics so far, with a refrain of “I wanna love you.” “Landslide” lingers in this sonic space, trudging along with flickering static percussion, space lounge guitars, and the titular phrase let out with a theatrical Eastern melisma. “Gilgamesh” brings more drones and static and more whispered entreaties with Steven somewhere between Reznor and Timberlake. Stevens’ references extend from Eden to Theosophy, and his lyrics include lines like “My heart is chained to thee, angel.”
Next, Stevens launches back into space, and retreats back into the ‘80s — somewhat. It’s a dominant snare that leads the way, much like in “Video Game,” although we are now in an entirely different sonic realm. That crafty Stevens has wandered away, one track at a time, and left us way out in the wild. Moreover, he shows no sign of slowing down, now declaring, “Death star into space.” There’s almost an Afrika Bambaataa feel to the song, although darker and hazier, with the ghostly choirs that pervaded the opener hovering here too. At this point, the album runs like a slick DJ mix, with “Goodbye to All That” putting a spin on the same groove. When Stevens sings, “Here I am alone in my car… I’m driving to wherever you are,” it makes sense how far away we’ve ended up. Moreover, one has to admire the mad passion in such lyrics.
The drums reduce to a skittering pulse on latest single “Sugar.” Stevens sings, “You tell me that you wanna fall back / But I don’t wanna do this again,” and proceeds to a refrain of “Come on baby, give me some sugar.” The song is one of the mellowest on the record, and Stevens’ empathic voice shines over the decluttered backdrop. Sure, the chorus line could hardly be more cliche, but in context, it expresses a rejection of old ways in favor of love, and more broadly, anything positive and pure. This is, indeed, how Stevens himself has described the song, with an emphasis on its relevance to the present moment. On one hand, this can be taken as a harmonious message in the socially fraught climate of 2020. Also, it nods to the reevaluation of priorities and newfound intimacy that many have experienced as the pandemic forced them to stop and look to each other.
This latter idea is more applicable yet to the title track. While the bulk of the album’s lyrics have amounted to grand declarations of love and escapist excursions, this song is a sobering moment of reflection. The ubiquitous spacey synths are subdued, and Stevens’ voice remains at the forefront. “And now it strikes me far too late again / That I should answer for myself as the Ascension falls upon me.” Having reached this enlightenment, Stevens asks, “What now?” and the track returns to New Age territory. The final, ethereal ending comes with lead single “America.” Sprawling and spacious, the song is full of echoing trails, with a standout guitar solo. The sweeping pads, processed choirs, and all the works mesh and pan out slowly in a track running over twelve minutes. In the humble voice discovered in the last song, Stevens confesses, “I have loved you, I have grieved,” and concludes with repetitions of “Don’t do to me what you did to America.”
Coming from an artist who once aspired to release fifty records, one for each state of the United States, the final words of “America” ring with plenty of gravity. Stevens’ choice to end on this note recontextualizes the sometimes frivolous content elsewhere. “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” and “Run Away WIth Me” are pleased to escape not only to a different world, but to different ways. After all, Stevens elucidates his disavowal of conformity in general when he insists, “I don’t wanna play your video game.” So dissatisfied is Stevens that he declares, “Goodbye to All That,” and wishes desperately to merely “Die Happy.” All of the love songs scattered through the album represent the ideal toward which he wishes to move. And the journey toward it is “The Ascension.” Full of immersive ambience and exhilarating noise, as well as synths, beats, and choruses that will likely come with dance routines, Stevens makes it an entertaining escapade.
“The Ascension” releases Sept. 25 on Apple Music.