Sufjan Stevens makes songs the length of EPs, and EPs the length of albums, so after a few listens you realize it’s hard to get in a few listens of the nearly hour and a half long Age Of Adz. But is it worth the extra time and the extra money? Yes.
This is one of Stevens’ most immediate records. Past albums dealt with history, personal, public, familial. Here the first person present tense is everywhere. For instance, the pretty opener “Futile Devices,” where Stevens sings about love (“Saying it out loud is hard / So I won’t say it at all”). He hasn’t been this straightforward since Seven Swans. But even the recording decisions feel more streamlined, from “Too Much” on: It’s the scattered electronic rhythms of Enjoy Your Rabbit attached to the orchestral flourishes of his more recent albums. Again, this decision feels more real, all the squelching and scattered beats sound more organic than past albums, the way they flutter and burst sounds like nerves and anxiety being worked out.
The line “Lover, will you look at me now?” opens “I Walked.” Once again it’s present, tense, Stevens’ shaky falsetto sounding shaky for reasons other than it being hard to sing in falsetto. “Lover” is used often on The Age Of Adz. But it’s hard to know what this means about Stevens’ present; his past albums have told us he had a difficult childhood. You can say that this album, and its speaker, is dealing with love, guilt, rejection– and crochet (one of Stevens’s many quaint hobbies, and one that gets a fair bit of attention on the record). On “Get Real Get Right,” he sings, “I’ve lost my conscience, I’ve lost my shame,” but he hasn’t lost all his shame, because there’s only one person you get right with. Of course many other lines seem to be about outsider artist Royal Robertson, the stated inspiration behind the album. So that’s why it’s once again hard to make guesses about who Stevens is addressing in these songs, or whether these lyrics are spoken from Stevens’ perspective, Robertson’s, or Stevens’ perspective disguised as Robertson’s.
It’s easier, though, to talk about how “Get Real Get Right,” with its weird cascading verses, is kind of ugly. Because it’s great that The Age Of Adz isn’t very pretty, or at least, isn’t as pretty as Michigan or Illinois. The high-pitched guitar on 25-minute closer “Impossible Soul,” the cursing and Autotune? Ugly. And that’s a welcome change. Unrelenting prettiness, wispy precious moments were the best and worst part of Michigan and Illinois. Maybe you think that horn flourishes and triumphant string swells are Stevens’ biggest gift; this album chips away at the decorative edges, but still has songs that are melodic, huge, and sound personal while keeping that little bit of distance that lends Stevens his inscrutable aura. That last part means that far from being done with music, he’s probably got a lot more hidden away.