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“Age of ADZ” Sufjan Stevens


Sufjan Stevens
“Age of ADZ”
[Asthmatic Kitty, 2010]

RATING: 8

“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:

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Doveman “The Conformist” / Sufjan Stevens “The BQE”

Doveman
“The Conformist”
(Brassland)
 

Rating: 7

While perusing some of the new releases a few weeks ago, I came across the comforting sounds of Doveman, a concert pianist who has worked with the likes of Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and David Byrne.  As the first song “Breathing Out” unraveled, I was instantly brought back to the first time I heard Sufjan Steven’s “Greetings from Michigan”.  All the pieces are there: the soft plink of a piano, the ghostly strum of a banjo, and the whispering tenor voice pouring out his soul.  “The Best Thing” continues the same vibe, building to a dramatic finish of harmonizing voices and the elegant banjo being picked by none other than Sam Amidon, offering his skills to Doveman’s work.  By the third song, “Memorize”, I was already multi-tasking, listening to the upbeat, spacey song while visiting Insound.com to order my new discovery.  “Memorize” shows Doveman’s chops, exploring new environs with a muffled drum machine and vibrating organ, pushing the song along. 

Once I received the CD, my original love of the album continued…for the first four tracks. It’s not that the second half of the album lacks anything that the beginning features.  It’s just that by the time “From Silence” arrives, Doveman’s continuous whispering voice wears thin.  While Sufjan is able to balance between his intimate, soft storytelling and celebratory glee choir, Doveman stays planted in the same, depressing tone, despite efforts to go elsewhere on songs like “The Best Thing” and “Memorize”. 

I realize I’m being too hard on Doveman. To compare him to Sufjan is like comparing Busch Light to Dale’s Pale Ale: it’s just not fair.  “The Conformist” is an excellent album if you’re in the mood for songs that inspire self-reflection.  Maybe Sufjan is to blame. His last album “Come On Feel the Illinoise” came out four years ago, and it’s getting to the point where I can’t help but wonder when he’ll return to the limelight.

 Speaking of Sufjan…

 

 Sufjan Stevens
“The BQE”
Asthmatic Kitty Records

Rating: 7.5

 

“The BQE” is a documentary Sufjan made about, well, the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Exchange), a stretch of helter skelter highway running through New York City, inducing headaches to commuters on a daily basis. The DVD documentary comes with a CD of the soundtrack, a large narrative booklet on the BQE, and a Viewmaster slide featuring photos of the BQE (I actually went out and bought a Viewmaster to view the pics…yes, I’m an über Sufjan fan).  It seems like a strange project considering he still has 48 states to write albums about (or is he now going to attempt to write an album about every major U.S. interstate?)  Needless to say, Sufjan likes to take on strange, thematic projects (one of his earliest albums, “Enjoy Your Rabbit”, is a song by song run through the Chinese zodiac).  Yet, this focus on what seems to most as mundane is what makes Sufjan’s work so refreshing.

The album begins with lush, Gershwin-inspired orchestration.  As I listened to the opening fanfare and the first few movements that followed, I was brought back to my childhood, watching a Disney documentary on the Grand Canyon, with phantasmagoria orchestra leading you through one of America’s most prominent landmarks.  I’d venture to guess that is what Sufjan was going for. He has a penchant for making the dull seem significant, as if a disheveled New York interstate deserves the same respect as the Grand Canyon in some demented way.

Most of the soundtrack sounds alien to what you usually expect from Sufjan. Parts sound like an excerpt from “The Peanuts”, others like left-overs from the “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” soundtrack.  Only on “Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” do we hear hints of the Sufjan we know and love. The familiar leads into the strangest song on the album, “Movement IV: Traffic Shock”, an electronica bleep fest, lost amidst the grandeur of classic Americana.  I have a feeling this is just a hint of things to come from Sufjan, sounding very similar to the new song he leaked this summer at a concert in Ithaca.

 I could respect his efforts but while listening to the soundtrack, I kept finding myself disinterested. I soon realized what was missing: Sufjan’s voice. Not necessarily his singing voice, but his voice: his storytelling, his insight, his aura. I made it through the whole soundtrack, begrudgingly, wishing for the Sufjan of old.

A few days later, I decided to throw in the DVD to see what his movie was all about.  Once again, I was disappointed. The first ten minutes featured slow moving traffic, with boats floating in the forefront.  It seemed like a movie a film school student put together at the last minute after a night at a kegger.  I became so bored with the visuals, I turned my attention to the booklet, reading Sufjan’s words as the film continued rolling footage of cars.  And then I heard the voice.

 His words mesmerized me; his writing craft instantly put me to shame. Two paragraphs into the essay I was hooked. Who knew the history of an interstate could be so interesting? As he drew me in more and more, I looked up at the TV, and what once seemed amateur, suddenly exuded significance.  Using three frames, side by side, the three videos of cars somehow melded into one, looking like what Henry Ford might have seen while tripping on acid.  The roving traffic, the shimmering lights, the ocean-like motion of the cars: I no longer needed Sufjan’s storytelling. The video held the aura; the BQE held the stories.

Like most of Sufjan’s work, “The BQE” requires your undivided attention. The only difference is with albums like “Greetings From Michigan” and “Seven Swans” you can also just listen to the music for enjoyment, while you can’t truly enjoy “BQE” without the visuals. As much as I respect and envy Sufjan’s skills as a film maker/writer, I still like the familiar singer songwriter best of all.

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