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 ‘Illinois’ 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 ‘All Delighted People’, 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’), ‘The Age Of Adz’ 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 ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ with ‘Illinois’’ melodic sweep for a blockbuster ride that begs you to call it a folly.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve memorised your face”, croons Sufjers as piano and acoustic guitar dance with tippy-toed grace on ‘Futile Devices’, the surprisingly low-key opening track. Then things kick off spectacularly with the aptly named ‘Too Much’, 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 Win Butler’s barking, cyborg twin: “When I die I’ll rest/But while I’m living I’ll give it all I got”. It’s patchily brilliant, but somehow fails to dispel the notion Stevens isn’t connecting here like we know he can.

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

Madness lurks at every turn: ‘I Want To Be Well’ sounds like a Disney animation of [a]Patrick Wolf[/a] falling down the stairs, until Stevens declares “I’m not fucking around” halfway through and sprints clear off into the distance. Meanwhile the 25-minute closer ‘Impossible Soul’ 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 R Kelly blush.

Breathtakingly de trop in almost every regard, ‘The Age Of Adz’ 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?

Alex Denney

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

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