Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)

For his first proper album in years, our favourite indie-folk weirdo tackles the apocalypse... of course

He’s a tricky so-and-so that [a]Sufjan Stevens[/a]. It’s five years since ‘[b]Illinois[/b]’ forced twee kids everywhere to down their ironic bingo cards and shake hands with the wider world, and what have we had since? Some half-arsed Christmas carol covers and an ode to an auxiliary interstate highway. Then – whomp – the Detroit-born maestro saddles us with ‘[b]All Delighted People[/b]’, an EP so massive it was practically flanked by scenic flocks of birds. And now this, a sixth album proper that’s madder than [a]Lady Gaga[/a]’s fleshy kecks.

Casting off for good the federal shackles of the 50-state project (now waved away by its architect as a ‘promotional gimmick’), ‘[b]The Age Of Adz[/b]’ settles instead for Sufjan Versus The Apocalypse – it’s a earth-shattering meditation on the world’s end inspired by outsider artist Royal Robertson, whose creepy artwork adorns the sleeve. All of which is backed up by Stevens’ portentous mise-en-scène, combining the beat-strewn experiments of ‘[b]Enjoy Your Rabbit[/b]’ with ‘[b]Illinois[/b]’’ melodic sweep for a blockbuster ride that begs you to call it a folly.

“[i]It’s been a long, long time since I’ve memorised your face[/i]”, croons Sufjers as piano and acoustic guitar dance with tippy-toed grace on ‘[b]Futile Devices[/b]’, the surprisingly low-key opening track. Then things kick off spectacularly with the aptly named ‘[b]Too Much[/b]’, a lover’s lament pitted bizarrely against sputtering, pixellated angles, like Autechre with added horn section. When the familiar flutes gust in like wind up God’s own skirt, the results are exhilarating – and more than a little sick-making.

There’s no let-up with the eight-minute title track. Orchestral parts go scuttling across the soundscape like startled creatures, while Stevens comes on like [b]Win Butler[/b]’s barking, cyborg twin: “[i]When I die I’ll rest/But while I’m living I’ll give it all I got[/i]”. It’s patchily brilliant, but somehow fails to dispel the notion Stevens isn’t connecting here like we know he can.

By contrast ‘[b]I Walked[/b]’ is breathtakingly good, a slice of blue-eyed pop/soul like [a]Prince[/a]’s ‘[b]Little Red Corvette[/b]’ that perfectly demonstrates the man’s way with a tune. It’s the best thing on here, and with ‘[b]Now That I’m Older[/b]’’s heavenly confusion of choral sighs gives the record its mournful heartbeat.

Madness lurks at every turn: ‘[b]I Want To Be Well[/b]’ sounds like a Disney animation of [a]Patrick Wolf[/a] falling down the stairs, until Stevens declares “[i]I’m not fucking around[/i]” halfway through and sprints clear off into the distance. Meanwhile the 25-minute closer ‘[b]Impossible Soul[/b]’ is all laser FX, avant-Neil Young soloing (courtesy of indie shredder [a]Marnie Stern[/a]) and the kind of vocoderised acrobatics that’d make [b]R Kelly[/b] blush.

Breathtakingly [i]de trop[/i] in almost every regard, ‘[b]The Age Of Adz[/b]’ also conjures just enough moments of heart-stopping gorgeousness to foot the bill for its dizzying excesses. Who knew the apocalypse could be so beautiful?

[b]Alex Denney[/b]

Click here to get your copy of Sufjan Steven’s’The Age of Adz’ from Rough Trade Shops.