2020 – Folk / Electronic
Despite having an excellent production, well-written lyrics and good intentions, Sufjan Stevens’ new album, The Ascension, arrives as a dense and detailed album, which is also sometimes boring, very long and monotone.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the most ambitious and visionary musicians in history. In 2003, he announced that he was starting a project called “Fifty States Project,” which consisted of releasing an album about each of the American states. The first two albums, 2003’s Michigan — an exuberant well-produced tribute — and 2005’s Illinois — a long album with its long title tracks — were a milestone in the first decade of the 2000s, being acclaimed for their folk sound and carefully detailed lyrics. However, at this rate, Stevens would take almost 100 years to complete his project, which he later rated as a joke and promotional tactic. However, this was not the end of his immensity of creativity, ambition and determination since, in 2015, Carrie & Lowell — a sad folk album named after Sufjan’s mother and stepfather — arrived as the best album he had ever had released. He had never sounded so intimate and emotional before and after that. However, as much as his new solo album, The Ascension, demonstrates an ambition that he always demonstrates, it seems lost within Stevens’ discography, being his likely white elephant.
Stevens completely abandoned the folk and intimate sounds seen in his other albums — Carrie & Lowell, for example — and opted for atmospheric synthesizers, metal beats, industrial gears and samples and mixed voices. Working with lyrics that are not as intimate as those of his past projects and that divide its attention between Stevens and society problems while completely electronic instrumentals play in the back, The Ascension arrives as a dense and detailed album, but it is still slow, very long and sometimes even dull and monotone. With some tracks that reach spiritual levels and others that are boring and generic, Stevens’ new album has a goal, however, it seems not to know how to get there, stumbling several times over unnecessary and tiring songs.
In fact, The Ascension‘s biggest problem is the sudden and unexpected turn in Sufjan’s sonority. He said that in an interview he was exhausted after playing intimate folk songs that reminded him of his sad childhood and his traumas — a.k.a. Carrie & Lowell. So, it makes sense that this new album is the opposite of its predecessor. The Ascension is provocative, political, about faith, love and self-awareness, surrounded by electronic beats that at least seem happy, deconstructed and lively. However, as much as the production of the album is phenomenal and Stevens proves that he can develop something great in any genre, The Ascension does not look anything like Sufjan. At various times, it hardly seemed that we were listening to an album by the singer who had delivered albums that were sustained by sound simplicity, but rather an experimental electronic singer who was starting its career. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, however, put together with Stevens’ other albums, The Ascension really seems weaker and more distant from the singer.
However, even so, the best songs on Stevens’ new album are those that have a more captivating and less monotonous sound. In “Run Away with Me,” which is compared to a track by Carly Rae Jepsen of the same name, Sufjan appears milder immersed in a sea of deep, heavy synths inhabited by brighter beats that act like rare fish. It can be said that this is the light pop track that the album needed. Likewise, while “Landslide” shows Sufjan with very well-perfected vocals that sound cute, beautiful and powerful, “Tell Me You Love Me” appears as one of the cutest and most beautiful songs of the year and “Video Game” as one of the most memorable and nicest. Sufjan really got it right.
One of the most undeniable things is Sufjan’s love for his religion and The Ascension covers it in a very interesting way. In “Tell Me You Love Me,” one of the best on the album, Sufjan braids a lyrics that seems to be about a lover, however, afterwards it becomes clear that he was talking to his true love, God. In addition to the lyrics that manage to create this duality very well, the track features synthetic instruments that knew how to work here: the track looks like a slow, glowing, dark ballad that gains charm with Stevens’ various vocal layers. He pleads, “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything/Tell me you love me anyway.” In other songs, love for God also appears in a camouflaged way between the lines and metaphors. In “Ursa Major,” with its totally deconstructed sound, he compares a constellation that can be seen all year with God and his omnipresence. Ironically, in one of the tracks, “Ativan,” God becomes a remedy, which Sufjan asks for with a fully electronically modified voice while synthesizers get more and more intense, “Tranquilize me, sanitize me, Ativan.”
Social criticism has always been equally strong in Stevens’ projects — take Illinois and its track about a serial killer as an example. “Video Game,” one of the best on the album, besides having a great and well-made progression, counts with a very captivating lyrics and sound, talking about the new gods of the new digital age while beats and generic samples sound very fun and entertaining in the back. He sings, “I don’t care if everybody else is into it/I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain/I don’t wanna play your video game.” In the almost transcendental “Death Star,” the singer creates a metaphor about how humans and the destruction of planet Earth turned our home into a death star. We cause our own death. He sings, “Death star into space/What you call the human race,” while generic synthesizers don’t sound so bad. Finally, even though “Sugar” is very long, the hidden request for peace ends up paying off — but I still think the band should be cut in half.
Lastly, The Ascension’s worst songs are those that distance the listener from Sufjan, or at least, from his memorable qualities. The album’s opener, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” unfortunately is one of the album’s weakest points. Despite being very well produced, some strange sound elements and the lyrics, that are not very clear, made the track an easy skip. “Lamentations,” by its turn, in addition to its confused lyrics that seem to struggle to get to something that makes sense, carries an instrumental that looks like a joke: several beats, samples and strange noises that are mixed in a disconnected way. In fact, this track had an ambition, but that doesn’t mean it worked. Finally, while “Die Happy” has a very good progression but ended up being very tiring and not surprising, “Gilgamesh” appears too much complex and complicated, even for Sufjan. Unfortunately, these negative points were very strong here.
However, even with good points, The Ascension is still a long album. It takes 80 minutes for the album to be completed and within that time, several very long and monotone songs are found — to quote, “Goodbye to All That” — and even the positive ones sometimes sound a little tiring. Fortunately, the last two tracks are the best. The title track of the album is one of the best that Sufjan has ever written. The beautiful “The Ascension” shows him taking on double self-awareness: first he sees himself as an envoy from God to get the message across and change the world — which refers to his first albums. However, then he realizes that he cannot force nor ask too much from other people. Finally, even though “America” is not the best alternative to finalize the album, it still has an excellent instrumental, impressive vocals and an incredible lyrics that mixes social criticism with biblical passages. He asks, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” Sad to see that it took us so long to get to this request.