Is there a big-ticket indie album from the 2010s as confounding and divisive as The Age Of Adz? Sufjan Stevens’ sixth full-length — which turns 10 years old today — arrived at the turn of a new decade and effectively wiped away all previous expectations anyone had for the enigmatic, previously raconteur-ish singer-songwriter. Throw its title into the ether of social media these days, and you’ll still find those fervently battling on either side of its synth-strewn, drum machine-dotted divide. It’s genius! It’s annoying! It’s packed with epic beauty! It’s insufferably tedious! Above all else, though, The Age Of Adz marked an exciting new chapter for Stevens, as he dove deeper than ever before into his own fractured psyche and showcased a capacity for experimentation that’s defined his career since.
Prior to Adz, finding Stevens in his own work meant diving into the subtext of the narrative storytelling that marked canonical albums like 2003’s Michigan and its 2005 “sequel” Illinois; after Adz, he’s opened himself up more than ever while still keeping just enough distance, from engaging in excoriating familial trauma to treating his own neuroses as a freshly cracked egg, anxiety and anger quickly spreading like a broken yolk. No matter how you feel about it (I’m personally in the “genius” category), The Age Of Adz is effectively the portal that exists between what currently stands as the two halves in Stevens’ career. What came before feels like a distant memory, and what came after couldn’t exist without it.
Part of what made The Age Of Adz — a wild-eyed document of panic and illness jam-packed with frayed electronic sounds and gang vocals, often resembling a group of robots attacking a cheerleading team — so shocking upon release was the prolonged period of absence that came before it. Stevens never really took time off from music following the seismic impact of Illinois (he quickly followed it up with the excellent outtakes collection The Avalanche in 2006), but the remainder of the 2000s was far less eventful career-wise than the unbelievable three-year span from Michigan to Illinois, which also included his beautifully stark collection of Flannery O’Connor-isms Seven Swans in 2004. (To repeat for emphasis, it is truly wild to think that he put out those three albums within three years — a run perhaps only matched in 2000s indie by Deerhoof’s Reveille-to-Friend Opportunity span and Animal Collective’s decade-bookending stretch.)
There was the still-beloved Songs For Christmas EP collection from 2006, as well as the compositional The BQE from 2009; Stevens also contributed piano to “Racing Like A Pro” and “Ada” on the National’s 2007 classic Boxer and dropped the occasional cover of varying quality, as if creating a breadcrumb trail to nowhere. There persisted the belief throughout that Stevens would emerge with the next installment in the since-debunked “50 States Project” that Michigan and Illinois supposedly kicked off — but as every year passed, it seemed as if he was simply content to go all Nico Muhly with it and spend his days tinkering on experimental releases and orchestral works. “I no longer really have faith in the album anymore,” he told Paste in 2009. “I no longer have faith in the song.”
What a difference a year made. On Aug. 20, 2010, Stevens released the All Delighted People EP, a clearinghouse of sorts that was followed a week later by the announcement that a new album called The Age Of Adz was coming a month and a half later. Spanning stark live favorites and massive guitar-jam epics, nothing on All Delighted People came close to hinting at what was to come on The Age Of Adz: a 75-minute epic of jittery, extroverted, cacophonous electronic pop music, conceived after a debilitating health episode in which Stevens suffered from a virus that affected his nervous system and resulted in chronic pain thereafter. In a 2010 interview with Exclaim! he described the album as “a result of that process of working through health issues and getting much more in touch with my physical self. That’s why I think the record’s really obsessed with sensation and has a hysterical melodrama to it.”
The second half of that quote is an all-timer when it comes to understatement. The Stevens of The Age Of Adz is, compared to the Stevens of Illinois, unrecognizable — all sinew and blood, uncomfortably intense and personal in a way that totally stood against much of not only his own catalog but also what preceded it in the increasingly encompassing marketing term that was “indie,” as well as what was currently happening at the time of the album’s release. Instead of dreams of Carl Sandburg, there’s full-on freakouts like “Get Real Get Right” and “I Want To Be Well,” the latter of which features female vocals breathlessly chanting, “Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn/ Illness is watching, waiting its turn.”
On Illinois‘ characteristic character study “John Wayne Gacy,” there was a moment of pure discomfort when Stevens turned the camera on himself at the song’s very end. On The Age Of Adz‘s smoking funeral pyre “Vesuvius,” he’s joined by his collaborators (to this day, the album’s credits have never been provided in any meaningful form) to directly address himself as the protagonist in his own perilous story: “Sufjan, follow the path/ It leads to an article of imminent death.” Tough stuff throughout — and it’s all accompanied by a bevy of bleeps and bloops, as Stevens’ orchestral instincts (woodwinds surely abound) do metaphysical battle with zip-zap keyboards and aggressive drum machines, perhaps mirroring the ways in which he felt his own nervous system assaulted while ill.
The Age Of Adz would prove a challenging listen even if it was without its final track, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.” If listening to this album was equated to playing a video game, then “Impossible Soul” is the final boss, as Stevens hurls headlong through a multi-suite creation — swaying indie-pop, crashing electronic breakdowns, a broken-vocoder plea at the center, all-in-it celebratory fanfare, hissing-steam beat-blasts — before arriving at a shiver-inducing conclusion, just Stevens and his banjo weightlessly orbiting the chaos he’s created. The entire thing is as confounding as it is breathtaking; the hushed final moments are a landing-sticking that seems almost laughably inconceivable given what preceded it.
The Age Of Adz got generally good critical notice, but was divisive otherwise. (As someone who worked at Pitchfork during the time of its release, I can confirm that the Best New Music tag it eventually earned was hard-won.) Many reacted to the album with a collective head-scratching for the same reason Carrie & Lowell was so universally embraced upon release five years later: Listeners had come to expect something very specific from Stevens, and to those listeners the indulgences featured on The Age Of Adz were simply standing in the way of the warm-blanket songwriting they’d come to expect from him.
Of course, Carrie & Lowell — an album about Stevens’ deceased mother, the struggles she faced throughout her life, and the abandonment he experienced from her at just a year old — was no Illinois either, and it was every bit as uncomfortably personal as The Age Of Adz had been. But the starkness and ego-free storytelling of that album (guitar, piano, that’s about it) was closer to pre-Adz Sufjan, especially the intimacy of Seven Swans, even as it couldn’t possibly exist without The Age Of Adz as a predecessor. As far as that latter point, the same goes for this year’s The Ascension, another electronic fantasia brimming with bad feelings and faithlessness that seems poised to take The Age Of Adz‘s mantle as Stevens’ most divisive album.
The tour that accompanied The Age Of Adz was almost as strident as the album itself: Stevens was frequently decked out in neon stripes and shiny visors, hopping around and performing choreographed dance moves. At the midpoint of a super-super-sized “Impossible Soul,” he’d dress up in a diamond-like costume, keening into the microphone while surrounded by a plethora of electronics. I saw the Adz tour twice, once outside and once inside, and both times count as some of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen — singular and special, mind-blowing and mind-overloading.
And whether you love it or hate it, The Age Of Adz retains those same qualities as well. Even as so much indie has become YouTube-pre-roll-ad-soundtracking synth-pop, no one’s tried to do something like it since, and considering the relatively smoothed-out environs of The Ascension, that includes Stevens. The closest recent analogue I can think of is Los Angeles brain-busters Glass Beach, who created their own digitally hyperfractalized take on emo with last year’s frequently astounding The First Glass Beach Album. Otherwise, The Age Of Adz remains peerless, a time bomb of an album that further cemented Stevens as one of the most fascinating and surprising songwriters alive.