Sufjan Stevens “Age of ADZ” [Asthmatic Kitty, 2010]
“What the hell are you doing Sufjan?!” This is a statement I made upon listening to his latest album “Age of ADZ” for the first time: his banjos replaced by synths, his acoustic finger picking transformed into an overtly processed electric guitar played through a multitude of effects pedals, his religiously inspired lyrics of hope turned apocalyptic and ominous. Had Sufjan lost his mind? The three albums released this year (yes, three!) have been all over the place: “BQE” – an ode to an interstate, “All Delighted People” – an EP response to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, and now “Age of ADZ” – a bio-album on the late-great schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson. It seems Sufjan has ditched his 50 states project for the moment in preference to albums focused on obscure, darker subject matter.
Robertson’s story is one of legends: a self-proclaimed prophet who, after 20 years of marriage, chose his art over his wife and children. Living the remainder of his life in a secluded trailer, Roberston drew and painted the images found within his hallucinatory visions of space travel and the end of all mankind at the hand of aliens. While Sufjan’s 50 states albums are filled with songs that are either celebratory or bittersweet, “ADZ” is, as you can probably imagine, pretty depressing.
But I’d be fooling you if I said this was an album solely about Roberston and his art. In truth, “ADZ” is Sufjan’s most autobiographical album to date. In the past, people have questioned whether the tales shared in classics like “Romulus” and “Casimir Palaski Day” were works of fiction or based on real life experiences, but there is no doubt that the pain expressed on “ADZ” is coming straight from Sufjan’s heart. In the same way Roberston chose his art over his wife and children, Sufjan recently went through a difficult break-up which I’m venturing to guess may have been due in part to his obsession with his own art (did I mention he came out with three albums this year?). I’m not just jumping to conclusions here; on “The Impossible Soul”, a song Sufjan himself described as a 25-minute-psycho-analysis, we hear the haunting female voice of Shara Doren (My Brightest Diamond) pleading “Don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted! Do you want to be alone?” to which Sufjan replies “NO I DON’T WANT TO FEEL PAIN!” Sufjan was drawn to Robertson for more reasons than his art; their stories seem parallel at times.
Here’s the first 12 minutes of the 25 minute song. The female pleading comes in at the four minute mark while the auto-tune makes its appearance 10 minutes in:
Even Sufjan’s signature sound has taken a turn for the frantic, each song crammed with clamorous, processed drum tracks, and a mixture of nondescript squeaking-buzzing-static that thrives from one song to the next. It is noise; pure and simple, and it can be a bit overpowering at times. He has talked in interviews about his experimentation with drum machines and synths, and it sounds like “ADZ” is his vehicle for displaying some of his most alarming music yet. The viscous atmosphere of racket can be as overwhelming as the insides of a fully-operating auto-manufacture plant. At one point he even goes so far as to insert an auto-tuned voice (“Impossible Soul” again), but in Sufjan’s hands, the once annoying musical crutch takes on a feeling of disconnect with mankind.
As if the mechanical malfunctioning isn’t enough, Sufjan pairs it with an over-the-top, John Williams-style orchestra, backed up by a choir of angelic female voices. The results are strange, science fiction style arrangements that emulate Royal Roberton’s art style. His drawings, filled with futuristic imagery, are done in a cartoony, comic book style, and the same can be said about Sufjan’s travel into the world of synth. Yes, it’s fantastical and other-worldly, but it’s also a caricature of a space-age sound, like something from a demented Disney film.
Tell me we’re supposed to take the title track as a serious attempt at apocalyptic music; try convincing me:
The songs on “ADZ” remind me of a lot of the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, a strange declaration, I’m sure. Vonnegut is often referenced as a “science fiction” author, but this label doesn’t sit well with me. Yes, Vonnegut often wrote of time travel, aliens, and life on other planets, but it’s not done in the same way a Phillip K. Dick or a Ray Bradbury would approach it. He isn’t writing of these places and events to entertain nor is he trying to convey them with realism. Instead, he’s using them as a vehicle for conveying a larger message about humanity. The songs on “ADZ” are done in such an over-the-top space-age motif that it’s difficult to take them serious, which in the end is the point. On surface it’s an album of robot take-over and the arrival of Judgment Day, but any able-minded person knows that Sufjan is talking about the demons within his soul, battling it out, not of UFOs and killer volcanoes.
One of the biggest battles is seen in “Vesuvius”, a musical version of “Joe Vs. The Volcano” (also my favorite track on the album):
After a few listens, my once bewilderment was replaced with a reaffirmed reverence for Sufjan and his ability to create albums that convey not only a tone but also a setting. With his proclivity for writing thematic opuses, “Age of ADZ” is just one more chapter in his series of complete works of art. It’s obvious the man understands the elements that make a grand album, which could explain why it took him so long to release another one after “Come On Hear the Illinoise”. At the same time, I can’t place this album in the same pantheon as “Seven Swans” and “Greetings From Lake Michigan”. It’s a great; don’t hear me wrong here, but with all the noise, something gets lost in the tracks. Deep beneath the bedlam you can hear a great song, and you get why Sufjan made it such a raucous, melo-dramatic affair, but part of you will always be left wishing for more of those cornerstone classics that past albums have had.
“I Walked”: another instant classic from the album. No banjos, just classic 80s synth: