It is difficult to sum up or pigeon-hole Sufjan Stevens as an artist. This is owed not only to his extensive back-catalogue, eclectic collaborative work and the variability of his sound over time but also to the curious unease that has always permeated his music. Throughout his work there has always seemed to exist an existential worry, a spiritual doubt and an ontological insecurity. This is the case in terms of the themes and lyrics, but also in terms of the instrumentation. At times this juxtaposition of terms is subtle and nuanced, at times unmistakable – bordering on unpleasantly so.
Sometimes this disequilibrium works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sufjan Stevens has always seemed to be an artist who might be too little for some, too much for others and just right for many – and this may well be the case for The Ascension, his first major solo studio release in five years. Here we find an absence of Stevens bubblier charm, and an abundance of his moody, introspective, haunting, disquieting and, at times, unnerving sound. Sufjan Stevens’ folk fans may be left wanting, but appreciators of the experimental and the electronic will find something respectably unique and expertly produced. Fans of both Sufjan Stevens and electronic music might find something technically proficient but at times a little flat.
Stevens’ trademark spirit of religious angst is present in spades – which I find can actually be quite saddening. It paints the picture of an artist unable to find peace. I know that most artists are like that, but it has been a persistent theme in Stevens’ work for many years. It is perhaps no more salient than on The Ascension. The combination of Sufjan Stevens’ inarguably impressive vocals and excellent song-writing with the experimental electronic instrumentation works for me in principle, but unfortunately doesn’t always land. In my experience, many artists – when deciding to release an electronically inclined album – tack their existing sound onto some beginner’s derivation of the electronic fad du jour, but that can hardly be said to be the case here. The music is well mixed, organised, produced and presented – for the most part.
The tracks “Death Star” and “Goodbye To All That” contain ear-peeling tones that people over forty will likely be unable to hear, creating an unease that is neither thematic nor as part of a well-developed tension – just piercing and bad. These sounds may well have been omitted. The album is generally not difficult to listen to and is quite consistent – without playing things too safely – and so the inclusion of these tones seems like a cheap way to try and introduce discord.
Unlike most of his other releases, there aren’t many “singles”, “hits” or “big, dirty bangers” on The Ascension, which – on a release that is over an hour long – can make listening to it a little bit of a slog. Despite some deviations and upsets along the way, the listener could be forgiven for getting some of the tracks mixed up. The effects on Stevens’ voice, repetitive beats and the consistency of the instrumentation can make some songs seem interchangeable, even bland.
The song that stands out most to me is the title track, perhaps being most reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ previous work, containing some of his own brand of uncomfortably candid autobiographical storytelling. The album is then rounded out by “America”, a long, sad dirge of Stevens’ home nation – which has played so prominent a thematical role in his discography. Much like the rest of the album, the track has a hopeless pessimism to it – which, if you’re like me, will make you pine for a time when the world, and Sufjan Stevens, came with a cheerier ring.
Overall, the album is well put-together and sounds good – with a couple of curious inclusions. There is certainly much to like about the album, but I can’t help but doubt that the album will become many fans’ favourite. It is quite a long and demanding and at times unrewarding listen. It lacks much of the artist’s zest and seems to contain no optimism whatsoever. This is perhaps indicative of the times in which it was produced and does nothing to diminish the integrity of the album per se – it’s just a bit of a shame.
The record – for a long-time fan – borders on depressing. Fans of Sufjan Stevens’ sweet, campy appeal will find none of it on The Ascension. Perhaps such fans – including myself – are simply not arty enough to appreciate this record. As Stevens’ explains in the track “Video Game”, he isn’t really out to play for the crowd – which is understandable and even respectable – but it makes The Ascension somehow good, enjoyable, unenjoyable and disappointing at the same time. The uneasy, contradictory and enigmatic Sufjan Stevens strikes again.
Order The Ascension on Bandcamp.