Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review: Sufjan Stevens - The Age Of Adz

I'm getting London Bus syndrome with Sufjan Stevens at the moment. You wait 5 years for a proper release from the guy, and then two come along at once. August's All Delighted People EP (an LP's-worth of material to anyone else) was a closet clearer in the very best sense; a varied and at times exuberant collection of odds and sods that both nodded at the Sufjan who made Illinois and Michigan, whilst making clear hints towards pastures new.

Nothing, however, could quite prepare anyone for The Age Of Adz, an immense and initially almost unfathomonable work which sees Sufjan embrace all kinds of electronic bells and whistles in what is his busiest sounding record to date. Opening track Futile Devices is a red herring, albeit a fantastic one, full of the intricate guitar-picking and floaty vocals that Sufjan is so good at. Then Too Much squelches its way into view, anchored with the hums and drones and skittery beats that littered Kid A. Yet whilst Kid A was the sound of a band eschewing traditional instrumentation, The Age Of Adz still retains most of Sufjan's hallmarks: the angelic female backing vocals; the flourishes of orchestration; the fluttering of flutes. Now though, there's an added sense of urgency and desperation, something which translates into the lyrics. On Too Much a chorus of voices sings "there's too much riding on that" over a clattering coda. "Barricade the bathroom doors" cries Sufjan on Get Real Get Right as the song constantly raises its key, seemingly spirally inexorably toward the skies. Then there's his Thom Yorke-esque strangled delivery of the refrain "I'm not f*cking around" over I Want To Be Well's frantic mantra, one of the most exhilirating songs he's ever put to tape.

Self-doubt looms all over The Age Of Adz too, not surprising, given Sufjan's recent bouts of depression. On I Walked, he remarks "I walked/ 'cause you walked/ but I won't probably get very far". No longer restrained by a state-sized concept, The Age Of Adz is one of the personal offerings in Stevens' canon. Even so, the androids and extra-terrestrial deities that adorn the album's artwork don't feel out of place; you could imagine the hisses. gurgles and foreboding orchestration that usher in the title track soundtracking some skyscraper-sized robot laying waste to a city.

Yet amidst the chaos, there are moments of unadulterated beauty here. Now That I'm Older is formed on heavenly backing vocals and ripples of autoharp which swell and shimmer, allowing Sufjan's vocals to echo weightlessly over the top. It's one of the album's simpler arrangements, devoid of the clutter that appears elsewhere, and no more so than on the culminating 25 minute-long Impossible Soul, which features auto-tuned vocals, joyous exclamaitons of "it's not so impossible" and "boy/we can do much more together!" and a whole bundle of right-turns which eventually see the album go full-circle to the rustic playing which opened proceedings some 75 minutes previously. When guest vocalist Shara Worden's soothing tones tell us "don't be distracted", it's hard not to be, what with so much going on.

So yes, The Age Of Adz is overwhelming at times, and for the less patient it will be met with admiration but little love. But when things fall into place, as they so often do, Sufjan hits heights of songwritings that his contemparies cannot even see, let alone reach. In another crisis of self-confidence Sufjan notes, seemingly in disgust that "ordinary people are everywhere you look/ everywhere you turn". He needn't worry.

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