When Sufjan Stevens first wrote ‘America’, the lead single for his eighth studio album ‘The Ascension’, he shelved it. Written at the same time as he was working on 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’, Stevens thought the song’s haunting 12 minutes of exasperation and anger “felt vaguely mean-spirited”. Now, though, it feels strangely prescient. In an America that’s currently battling twin pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism – oh, and another make-or-break election around the corner – Stevens’ repeated calls of “don’t do to me what you did to America” are eerily fitting.
Standing as “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”, Stevens’ decision to return to ‘America’ a few years later served as a leaping-off point for ‘The Ascension’. Recognising that he “could no longer dismiss ‘America’ as angry and glib”, he instead felt inspired to create a whole record that examined the world he was living in, questioning it when it felt wrong and “exterminating all bullshit“. The sprawling results of this personal interrogation, which play out over a glitchy 80 minutes, serve as a powerful dissection of modern humanity.
Filled with universal anguish and anxieties, ‘The Ascension’ takes a different tack to its introspective predecessor (if we discount Stevens’ collaborative releases) ‘Carrie & Lowell’. That ultra-personal record saw Stevens explore his fractured relationship with his late mother Carrie, who suffered from schizophrenia, depression and substance addiction (she also abandoned Stevens when he was just 12 months old), and his complex grief in a bid to find closure following her death from cancer in 2012.
In contrast, ‘The Ascension’ takes a weary look at the outside world and out comes a deep sigh. Stellar recent single ‘Video Game’ sees Stevens decry a society built around social media approval, as he refuses to engage in the realm of hashtags and likes: “I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theatre / I don’t wanna play your video game”. On ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, Stevens considers if there’s a point to the chaotic world we live in: “And as the world turns, making such a mess / What’s the point of it when everything’s dispossessed?” The woozy, droning instrumental of slow lament ‘Die Happy’ (which sees Stevens repeat “I wanna die happy” over and over) evokes a dull anxiety that mirrors the feeling you get when you flick on the news or spend five minutes scrolling through Twitter’s stream of bullshit.
These lofty realisations can feel flowery and confused over an hour and 20 minutes runtime. Industrial-noise growler ‘Death Star’ sees Stevens fuming at humanity’s indifference, but the Star Wars-referencing lyrics feel muddled (“Death star into space / What you call the human race / Witness me, resist the hate / It’s your own damn head on that plate”). His lyrics often toe the line between gut-punchingly powerful and verbose. While his references to Christian theology and philosophy sometimes create vivid images (like in ‘America’ where Stevens sings: “I have loved you like a dream / I have kissed your lips like a Judas in heat”), other times they feel overly loquacious. Take ‘Landslide’, where Steven affirms: “At the risk of sounding like a Confucian / I saw your body and I saw what I liked”.
Yet even the most embellished line on the album can be salvaged by its shimmering instrumentation. At its core ‘The Ascension’ is a pop album, coupling catchy hooks with glittering production and deriving inspiration from some of the ‛80s biggest pop hits (Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ was a chief influence).
While a chunk of Stevens’ back catalogue is steeped in lush, expansive orchestration that made use of live woodwind and strings, this time there are very few live instruments involved (he recorded it almost entirely on his own using a drum machine and a few synthesisers). ‘The Ascension’ therefore has most in common musically with Stevens’ 2010 release ‘The Age of Adz’, his experimental electronic record that was inspired by the late artist Royal Robertson.
The unashamed pop feel of ‘The Ascension’ is regularly coupled with the sort of wiry electronics you might expect to hear in a Glastonbury dance tent at 4am. The album’s powerful opener ‘Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse’ pairs earnest vocals with slithering production, while ‘Video Game’ is a carousel ride of slinky synth licks, bouncy beats and sing-along melodies.
These anxious instrumentals echo the album’s uneasy outlook and fear of the future, and when they combine forces it often makes for an astonishing listen. The world is pretty shitty at the moment and it’s easy to feel helpless, but as the horror show that is 2020 continues to rumble on, ‘The Ascension’ is yet another ample soundtrack to rage-dance to.
- Release date: September 25
- Record label: Asthmatic Kitty