Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Sufjan Stevens The Ascension

“Is it all for nothing?” Sufjan Stevens cries out. “Is it all part of a plan?” This anguished outburst arrives about halfway through The Ascension, his first proper solo album in more than five years, on a song named for the seizure and anxiety medication Ativan. Over the track’s jittery electronic pulse, he later utters, “Fill me with the blood of Jesus,” which might reasonably lead you to believe the existential crisis in view here is related to a disintegration of Sufjan’s long-professed Christian faith. Ditto “America,” the bleary and expansive closing track that doubled as The Ascension‘s lead single, on which he proclaims, “I have loved you, I have grieved/ I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.”

No, Sufjan insists, “America” is not a religious song at all. We’re hearing it all wrong. Speaking to The Atlantic, in one of precious few interviews about the album so far, the fiercely private 45-year-old called the track a “crisis of faith about my identity as an American, and about my relationship to our culture, which I think is really diseased right now.” Elsewhere, a song named for Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye To All That” cuts ties with this country’s old toxic mythology: “Goodbye to all of that artifact/ Goodbye to everything out of whack.” This, too, is a significant twist within the career of a singer-songwriter who came to fame by devoting entire albums to Michigan and Illinois, crafting a weary but whimsical brand of Americana perfectly suited for the era of trucker caps and MP3 blogs.

In another interview at The Quietus, Sufjan calls himself an “Orthodox Christian” who studies and borrows from other religious traditions. Still, given that another song begins with the words, “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything,” I’d like to hear more about where he stands spiritually these days — via co-producer Casey Foubert and mastering engineer T.W. Walsh, The Ascension boasts more than one connection to the famously ex-Christian David Bazan. If I had to guess, his frustrations with this country relate to the way religion has become so messily entangled with politics. “Don’t do to me what you did to America!” he sings again and again, seemingly crying out to the sovereign deity who allowed this nation to self-destruct. Yet to hear Sufjan tell it, he is more concerned with how America has poisoned the concept of God along with everything else we’ve subsumed into our skewed national self-image.

Consider his comments after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a scathing rebuke of Christians who seem to have traded the teachings of Jesus for the gospel of Tucker Carlson. “You must take up the cross and follow that narrow path of sacrifice and love and service,” he wrote, sounding like someone who wants to see more of Jesus in American society, not less. “You must love your enemies, serve the poor, give everything away, and put yourself last. This goes against everything the world has taught you, and it goes against your instinct, and it most certainly goes against the laws of free enterprise and corporate interest. Money and power and governments are fraudulent and false gods. We must be in the world, not of the world.”

The second single from The Ascension offers a gentler but no less severe rebuke. A jaunty electro-pop track sung like a drowsy lullaby, “Video Game” is a takedown of the celebrity worship and social media attention-seeking that have contributed to our cultural decline: “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus/ I don’t wanna live inside of that flame/ In a way I wanna be my own believer/ I don’t wanna play your video game.” This disgust with the depravity of modern life is the force that animates the album, sending Sufjan scrambling to cope. At times he reacts to the state of the world by howling at the sky in search of redemption, as on “America” and “Ativan” and “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse.” Just as often, he retreats into a lover’s tender embrace, like on the whispery, enveloping “Run Away With Me” (not a Carly Rae Jepsen cover), the skittering flirtation “Landslide” (not a Fleetwood Mac cover), or the plaintively grandiose “Sugar” (not a Maroon 5 or Brockhampton or System Of A Down cover).

Sufjan has called The Ascension his most pessimistic album and his most honest, a “bossy and bitchy” affair that he felt the need to liven up with vibrant electronic arrangements. This tracks. There are still gang vocals that feel like they might’ve been sung by a choir of twee mystical creatures, and it’s not like Sufjan never sounded sad or struggled with doubt on his older releases. But if the pervasive anger and disillusionment strikes you as quite a departure from the wide-eyed author of “Chicago” and “That Dress Looks Nice On You” and “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!),” Sufjan would agree. These past few years have taken a toll on him, just like anyone else. “I have changed,” he told The Atlantic. “I’ve grown old and world-weary. I’m exhausted. I’m disenchanted. I’m a curmudgeon.”

That much has been clear for a while now. Sufjan’s previous solo album, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, was not exactly a return to his folk singer-songwriter roots as advertised. Rather, it swallowed up those early acoustic sounds in a cloud of despair, trading out precious storytelling and post-rock-gone-Broadway arrangements for dark personal reckoning and a faint ghostly glow. The Ascension applies the same treatment to 2010’s electronic freakout The Age Of Adz, presenting a more muted and beaten-down version of that album’s grand synthetic sweep. Often it conjures the numbness that comes from a life spent staring at screens, attempting to chase away the world’s ills with endless low-grade stimulation; occasionally it captures the panicked eruptions that follow when reality breaks through and it all becomes too much to bear.

Sufjan tends to release a bunch of music between his canonical statement albums, from Christmas anthologies to ballet scores to Aporia, this year’s ambient collaboration with his stepfather and Asthmatic Kitty co-founder Lowell Brams. It’s easy to brush all those side projects aside, but one of them is particularly instructive where The Ascension is concerned: Planetarium, the experimental electronic solar-system song cycle he released in 2017 with drummer James McAlister and two of the most prominent composers at the intersection of indie rock and classical music, Nico Muhly and the National’s Bryce Dessner. Listening back now, Planetarium‘s vast scope and frigid electronic textures are a preview of where Sufjan was going as a solo artist. It’s no coincidence that McAlister appears on four The Ascension tracks and Dessner plays guitar on opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse.”

That song is one of two that features “black magic” by Emil Nikolaisen of Norwegian shoegaze band Serena-Maneesh. It begins The Ascension in dramatic fashion: An ocean of tensely flickering synth and drum sounds kicks up crushing waves of noise, Sufjan wails, “Show me the face of the radical dream,” and a throttling industrial beat carries us home as pressure builds to claustrophobic extremes — a glorious bombardment that reminds me of what Thom Yorke was doing on ANIMA last year. In 2003, who’d have thunk that the guy with the banjo would someday be crafting chaotic dance-floor symphonies? (Given that Give Up was all the rage back then, perhaps the Postal Service pastiche of “Video Game” would have been more believable.)

Further climactic moments are in store in the album’s middle stretch. “Tell Me You Love Me,” a floaty power ballad that rips open like a gorgeous cloudburst at the end, segues directly into “Die Happy,” on which the desperate refrain “I wanna die happy” drifts through soundscapes both ominous and resolute, a choir of Sufjans refracting into the terrible and sublime. Out of that emerges “Ativan,” another deliberate buildup that explodes into a magnificent techno outro, again infused with Nikolaisen’s “black magic.” “Ursa Major” — perhaps the most overt pop song here, punctuated by Sufjan’s anxious yelps of “I wanna love you!” — precedes “Landslide,” a series of sonic cascades that, at its energizing peaks, finds his voice practically flying off a cliff.

Not every track is so dynamic and immediate, but the beats are abundant and inventive throughout. This is The Ascension‘s saving grace, the factor that opens up these songs as you sit with the album. Like Michigan and Illinois before it, it’s an overwhelming body of work, but unlike those albums, the range of sounds and moods is fairly narrow. It can grow dull and dreary during its long subdued stretches; at times its palette of sounds reminds me of zoned-out internet Muzak for preroll ads or fodder for a YouTube channel serving up chill electronic tracks for crushing your chemistry homework. It also sometimes seems to go on forever — and if Sufjan is attempting to capture the experience of living through a perpetual crisis that’s slowly but surely gnawing away at your hope, perhaps that sense of infinity is a feature rather than a bug. The Ascension will probably never be my favorite Sufjan Stevens album, but listening on headphones, I’m amazed at all the engaging rhythmic activity, the way all these shakes and jitters lend oomph to tracks that might otherwise register as amorphous vibes.

That said, the most pivotal track is the one that does away with beats altogether. “The Ascension” is one of Sufjan’s most powerful songs to date, a six-minute swell that wrings breathtaking beauty and catharsis out of little more than keyboards and breathy vocal melodies. It makes perfect sense as a title track because it is the key to understanding the album, resolving an hour of pointing and screaming by ceasing to search for meaning and putting the onus back on Sufjan himself. “When I am dead and the light leaves my breast,” he begins, “Nothing to be told, nothing to confess/ Let the record show what I couldn’t quite confess/ For by living for myself I was living for unrest.” As he moves on to the chorus and the music accumulates celestial warmth, his message becomes more explicit: “But now it strikes me far too late again/ That I was asking far too much of everyone around me/ And now it strikes me far too late again/ That I should answer for myself as the Ascension falls upon me.”

Up to this point, this epiphany seems to square with Sufjan’s public comments, but he would not be Sufjan Stevens if he was not forever keeping us guessing. The deeper you get into “The Ascension,” the more he sounds like someone having a reverse road-to-Damascus moment, rejecting the spiritual beliefs that have so long underlined his work. “And to everything there is no meaning,” he professes. “A season of pain and hopelessness/ I shouldn’t have looked for revelation / I should have resigned myself to this/ I thought I could change the world around me/ I thought I could change the world for best/ I thought I was called in convocation/ I thought I was sanctified and blessed.” Yet if Sufjan is no longer trying to make sense of the world, by the next stanza he asserts that “everything comes with consequence.” Rather than “lol nothing matters,” it all matters, and he’s approaching it with “exultation” and “adoration” rather than “hopelessness” and a “holy mess.”

It is possible to understand this as a dismissal of religious hypocrisy and a retrenchment into a purer, more authentic form of devotion to Jesus, but the plain-sense reading presents a man casting off that narrative entirely and venturing out into the great unknown. So, is Sufjan buying into the prevailing wisdom of the postmodern age — that we can’t ever really know the answers to life’s big questions and should just try the best we can and hope everything turns out alright? Or is he returning to the biblical message that despite widespread uncertainty about the big picture, God has given us some foundational truths to stabilize and guide us? The Ascension is frustratingly elusive on such matters, but if Sufjan’s theology remains difficult to parse, it has once again yielded a compelling creative statement. In the waning moments of “The Ascension,” he repeatedly poses a question as relevant to his own career as it is to the state of humanity — one that, depending on your perspective, could be terrifying or liberating or all of the above: “What now?”

The Ascension is out 9/25 on Asthmatic Kitty. Pre-order it here.

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