Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Age Of Adz’ – First Listen

After four years of terrible silence following 2005’s Kerouac-esque baroque opus, the sprawling ‘Illinois’, high king of epic pop Sufjan Stevens has burst back onto the scene with a bang – the double-whammy announcements of a new EP (‘All Delighted People’) AND a new album (‘The Age Of Adz’), leaving indie kids everywhere scrambling for their inhalers.

The latter, with its decidedly unsettling cover art paying homage to schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, is a far cry from the cutesy, pastel-hued retro postcards that adorned ‘Illinois’ and ‘Michigan’, adding weight to those rumours of Sufjan taking a U-turn into extra-terrestrial electronic ambience.

But what does ‘The Age Of Adz’ really sound like – and is the rainbow winged, all-American cub-scout Sufjan we once knew long gone?

Futile Devices
Put down your pitchforks, Sufjan purists – all is well on ‘The Age Of Adz”s bucolic opener, which meshes gently-undulating, Bon Iver-esque guitar with Sufjan’s hushed vocals; the overall effect is of a lost gem from Sufjan’s 2004 folk classic ‘Seven Swans’.

Too Much
Erm, but don’t relax completely – ‘Too Much’ is a lush slice of jerky electronica, with burbling synths, discordant horns and Sufjan’s lusty yelps recalling, bizarrely, Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’. Free download here.

Age Of Adz
Like the artwork of Royal Roberts, ‘Age of Adz’ is the apocalypse set to music, all wild ‘Kid A’ horns and claustrophobic video game bleeps, like SOS signals being transmitted through a Nintendo Gameboy. And Sufjan sounds distinctly unbalanced – yowling through a Tannoy-esque filter, with all the deranged passion of a fire-and-brimstone gospel preacher.

I Walked
This free MP3 has been deftly swooping its way around the blogosphere. ‘I Walked’ starts out with simply Sufjan’s mewl and sugar-paper flimsy beats, but swells into an unutterably gorgeous indie-pop anthem, laced with choral flourishes and electronic shuffles. Arcade Fire gone minimalist.

Now I’m Older
Featuring the same, heavenly choir from its predecessor, Ryuichi Sakamoto-esque piano twinkles, and Sufjan pulling off a heart-shattering falsetto, it’s a gorgeous moment – Sigur Rós minus the gobbledygook. The lyrics are moving too, Sufjan cooing, “I wasn’t older yet, I wasn’t wiser yet/Somewhere out there I lost whatever else I could get, I wasn’t over you,” like a reminiscing Holden Caulfield.

Get Real, Get Right
‘Get Real, Get Right’ has all the boy-scout perkiness of the cart-wheeling ‘The Henney Buggy Band’, Sufjan’s contribution to Asthmatic Kitty’s label sampler. It’s a bizarre spectacle – all parping horns, crunching beats and Sufjan’s auto-tuned voice, which features tinny vocal effects last featured on ’90s boyband records. There’s method in his madness, however, as it all swells into an air-punchingly triumphant chorus, Sufjan wailing “I must do the right thing!” over the musical melee.

Bad Communication
Half squelchy synths, half Sufjan cooing “Why won’t you notice me?” in an elegant mewl, this track is a bastard combination of a hymn and a Warner Bros Cartoon.

Sufjan going back to his roots, eulogising over landmarks. This time, it’s the Italian volcano of the title that gets the Sufjan treatment. The track itself is as stately as you’d expect, all gently-tumbling synths and humming organ, coupled with the whirring electronic feedback and screeching, free jazz horns.

All For Myself
Sexy, droning synths and fluttering choir snippets break into a woody torchsong, reminiscent of Justin Vernon’s bearded side-project, Volcano Choir – although the whirring, burbling electronics undertow carries all the lushness and the unmistakeable innovation of Björk’s ‘Alarm Call’.

I Want To Be Well
Like ‘Jacksonville’ from ‘Illinois’ put into hyperdrive, complete with deranged flute trills and electronic crashing and clapping, like a thunder storm threatening to ruin the parade. As he repeats, “I want to be well, I want to be well” over cracking, diseased synths, you can almost picture him trembling and rocking back and forth. Poor guy.

This track also marks the first time Sufjan has sung the F -word on record – “I’m not fucking around!” he coos (at least, that’s what it sounds like without a lyric sheet to hand), failing somehow, to be intimidating.

Impossible Soul
This track is Twenty Five Whole Minutes Long. ‘Impossible Soul’ is, in parts, as pretty as any Newsom creation, pitter-patter drums and liberal sprinklings of xylophone pepper Sufjan’s eulogies. ‘I would give my whole life to you, if I could get you at all”, he sings, before being interrupted by a deliciously meaty guitar solo, recalling ‘All Delighted People’s prog-rock leanings, as well as the jagged fret-wizardry of Marnie Stern.

From there on in, it’s musical mayhem – it features what sounds like an orchestra on acid, all spiralling horns and twitching, zig-zagging strings, a bawdy chorus yelling “NO I DON’T WANT TO BE AFRAID” – and auto-tune. Disney-esque motivational chants, sludgy electronic break-downs… it may well be a melting-pot of every musical genre prevalent in the last decade.

Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Age Of Adz’ is released on October 12