The Ascension finds Sufjan Stevens in Crisis: Album Review

“Is it all for nothing? Is it all part of a plan?”

In 2018, Sufjan Stevens was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars for the song”Mystery of Love” from the film “Call Me By Your Name”. He performed at the 90th Oscars to the delight of his fandom and fans of the Film. Of the experience, he described it as “a horrifying Scientology end-of-year prom.” and that it was “everything I hate about America and popular culture.”

I’ve wanted to hug Sufjan Stevens since his last solo release, the artlessly majestic Carrie & Lowell in 2015. The palpable grief that overwhelms that record is a sharp, piercing cut that transcends vinyl. On The Ascension, I want to give Stevens an even bigger hug, as this electropop successor feels, in many ways, like a cry for help. A grief that has transcended personal tragedy, and captured a spiritual ennui that assails the core of who Stevens is.

On The Ascension, Stevens presents himself at his most cynical, and broken, abandoning those truths that made him famous, in favor of truisms that the famous rely on. Let’s talk about it. For other music reviews, click here.

What is the Ascension?

The Ascension is Sufjan Stevens Eight Studio Album. Like The Age of Adz, The Ascension falls on the electronic side of his body of work. Much of the initial songwriting was done during recording sessions for Carrie & Lowell, with the first single “America” having been written as a folk song in 2014.

The choice to make a record of electronic sounds springs from reasons both spiritual and practical. After his Brooklyn Apartment was infested with Rats, Stevens was forced out by his landlord who then kept his instruments locked up except for his synthesizer. Because of this, he elected to move to the Catskills where he currently resides and during this period, because all of his analog instruments were in lock-up and he only had his electronic recording devices to make music. With this limited cadre of equipment, he decided to use the electronics to create his new record.

This record follows his collaborations with Bryce Dessner on Planetarium, and the new age ambient work with his father in law on Aporia. It is 80 minutes long, and divided into 15 tracks.

Three Parents

The Ascension, upon listen draws immediate comparison to The Age of Adz, with its electronic, glitchy soundscapes pared with lush breathing sonic breathing room and its, at times, an impressive breadth of sounds. However, the Ascension bears little resemblance to The Age of Adz as a whole. Adz is a record that, while sonically alien from Stevens’ other output, still falls well within his songwriting wheelhouse. There are the soft ballads like “Futile Devices” and the Ambitious 25-minute throw-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink finale “Vesuvius”. The adventurousness of rhythm and timbre, the use of choral arrangements, and the free-flowing songwriting are still very much Stevens sound.

The Ascension is a break from that. With some notable exceptions, The Ascension relies on pop-culture morés and pop song structures especially from modern electropop ala Charli XCX and Dua Lipa. Most of the 15 tracks are variations of current electropop standards: future nostalgia beats droning in repetitive on and ons, thrumming hypnotically downbeat while Stevens in his characteristic breathy falsetto sings minor-key laments. It’s the sound of Exhaustion.

“Make me an Offer I cannot refuse” sets the tone of the record perfectly with its repetitive sterile electronic sounds, interrupted with periodic lush strings and Stevens ever analog voice. As the track progresses, and the bromide of the song becomes a desperate plea for a reason to be faithful in the face of chaos, the sounds veer chaotically into entropic loudness. Getting more and more unhinged as he repeats the famous phrase “Make me an offer I cannot refuse.”

But then, “Run Away With Me”, “Video Game”, and “Lamentations” all work within limited sonic templates. They’re repetitive both in the arrangement, with similar lyrical themes, but also similar, redundant feeling choruses and verse-chorus-verse structures. Several songs on this record feel intentionally un-unique, which spits in the Age of Adz style.

It lacks the wide-eyed wonder of sonic possibility that Steven’s earlier output has. Rather it resembles the struggling incompleteness and smallness present on Carrie & Lowell, in which Steven’s grief was so overwhelming he made songs that were ellipses unto themselves, never to be resolved and to drift off aimlessly. The Ascension inverts this incompleteness with its repetition and attempt at barren cynicism. More on that below

Sufjan Stevens not playing the ascension
Sufjan Stevens performing live

Even with that, the record still has the sprawling hugeness of records like Illinois and Michigan, a panorama that comes with not only its 80 minute run time. While Stevens is not as granular about the American mythos as he is on those records, his flair for sprawling complicated records remains unchanged. The variety comes in around the edges, but are resisted at every turn by his desire to escape himself, and his reputation as a folk singer.

Regurgitated Mimesis

Looking at the lyrics, which are variations of famous pop culture phrases “Make Me an Offer I cannot refuse” “Die happy” “Give me Some Sugar” “Put the lotion in the basket” and on and on. These regurgitations of meaningless bromides that sound pithy and clever is a reflection of Stevens fractured, fractious emotional state in relation to his faith.

As Stevens told the quietus, his inspiration for this record comes from listening to Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” and finding inspiration in those declarative, imperatives, and ultimatums. These insta-quotes meant to uplift are used so regularly and with such emptiness that they not only don’t resolve anything, they become empty platitudes meant to fill space.

Indeed, several points in the record step away from his repetition and simplification of songwriting. Although most of the tracks sit in an uncomfortable puree of pop tropes, at several points there are sounds the evoke his old sounds – the snatch of a choral piece, the snatch of a piano shimmering in the distance – but all these pieces are distant, distorted, prone to electronic white noise. Broken in meaningful ways.

All the points at which the pop sounds move to something more expansive, the sounds grate and push. The distortions overwhelm. The sounds get too loud, the bits compress too much. Every time Stevens almost comes back to his older, expansive style, he pushes down harder with Sonic Panic Attacks like Track Highlight “Ativan”, which, with its jittering drum track and stuttering heart electronics is one of the moments of genuine discomfort sandwiched in between bland expostulations and Fleetwood Mac riffs on “Landslide” and “Die Happy”.

While the lyrics themselves veer from these bromides to moments of genuine depth – such as the final two tracks – most of the lyrical stylings parody and attack pop-culture at its most blandly aspirational and self-help obsessed. From “Death Star” to “Video Game”, earnestness is replaced with Personal Jesus’s and Destruction. It’s an insight and black mirror that drains energy from the listener, and removes a sense of feeling that it feels like Stevens desperately wants to escape.

The layers of electropop and lyrical regurgitated mimesis reinforce the cynicism Stevens has brought out. That cynicism which he claims has always been there, but hidden under the earnest folk singer facade. When I listen, I can’t tell which version of him is more real, but The Ascension posits that this is the real him.

There are no answers, only the illusion of them. And the music’s driving nature does everything it can to destroy and suck away joy and wonder. It’s an uncomfortable sensation to listen to, made worse by its

Faith Assailed

This effort to destroy all wonder and exploration reflects a grief wholly separate from the kind on Carrie and Lowell, it’s the grief that comes with a loss of Faith.

The Ascension migth be Steven’s most harrowing record yet as an expression of his sense of faith both in god and in America, which have always been linked in his body of work. The Ascension is as cynical a record as any he’s released. A pulling back, a turning away. From the opening moments on “Make me an offer I cannot refuse” where he openly begs God to give him an offer that will give him faith or when he goes into the harrowing emotional downturn on “Ativan” in which chemical manipulation serves as a substitute for the true light, Stevens pushes away from those things which he finds strength.

It’s heartbreaking, and lends a potency to the sounds. The 80 minutes serve to disconnect the listener and lull them into Stevens own private suffering. Stevens has elaborated in interviews that he is tired of his folk persona, despite being, at his core, a folk singer and this record is an effort to exorcise that side of him.

It makes the ending of the first track feel like a cry for help, as the strings spin out further and further into chaos, progressively more frenzied and frantic.

That faith is also reflected in Stevens obsession with the minutia of daily life and how it factors into storytelling. On Illinoise, the thrill of the record came in part from the explicit anecdotes of random characters and figures in the history of Illinois, from the overly long titles about alien visitation or Saul bellows ghost coming to visit and crying at that. On the Ascension, everything is insubstantial and internal. Nothing to grab onto outside of those platitudes. As Stevens explained, that’s intentional, as it seems ur suffering has taken on a universality.

The effect is alienating. The sounds leave me cold and sad. It’s good, but it’s heavy and it assails my spirit. Leaves me emotionally wrung out.

American Nightmare

America comes under fire in full in this record in a way that few of Sufjan’s previous records have. That is the point. Throughout this record, the conflation of faith in God is tied to faith in America. So the loss of faith and intentional replacement with repetitious cynicism bleeds the album dry of the love for America.

It is impossible to separate this record from its relationship to America at this cultural inflection point. Stevens, who built his career on his love for the country shows the corrosion of his belief in it. Shows that he no longer has the will or energy to deal with its vapid, click bait culture, that he no longer knows how to love it.

The title track and epic closer “America” is the most obvious example of it, but this frustration appears throughout the record in an abstruse ways. On Video game, he calls out America’s fascination with itself. The self destructive celebrity culture that consumes from the inside out by preying on our insecurities with the promise of personal absolution if you pay 2.99 a month to follow a celebrities onlyfans.

Part of what makes this record so distressing emotionally is how Stevens uses his grief for the loss of the American promise, his loss of faith in his religion, and the erosion of pop culture stripped of meaning and applies it to himself like a mask.

I have always seen the cynical efforts to take the piss out of others as far back as Illinois. “Come on Feel the Illinoise!” is such an on the nose title that it’s impossible to see it as an effort to take the piss out of the audience. This bubbling frustration has always been there, but in the past, theosophy and religion have acted as buffers. Stevens is not just cynical on those old records, though. He’s playful and joyous. He’s able to push past his darkness to see some kind of light. Emotional balance.

So when we get through the back half of this record, which feels intentionally and aggressively formless, all efforts at invention abandoned with tracks like “Death Star” and “Sugar” morose and despairing to the final two tracks, it’s tragic and a bit too much and not the mood.

The Ascension & America

The final two tracks are some of my favorite records on the album. While all the tracks work, in a distant, alienated way, the title track has weight because it’s the one moment where Stevens pulls back to reveal himself in the record. It shows the man as he is now.

The song feels like it was a folk demo off Carrie & Lowell with its melodic descent and the way he sings it, so densely packed with self-recrimination and bare admission of darkness, it runs a stark counterpoint to the entire record that preceded it. It’s one of the moments on the record where I start to feel the heavy pall of 80’s synth pull back and reveal the man, It’s a devastating song and it gives me flashbacks to Carrie & Lowell’s naked darkness.

It’s beautiful and haunting and inconclusive. It’s nakedness gives the record some room to breathe and it overwhelms me before that final track, so full of venom at american culture which is a substitute for god and the loss of loved ones. It’s the final genuine moment on the record and it is the high point for its aspirations. Paired with the final track, it makes the record graceful.

I don’t know how I would feel about this record if the final two tracks weren’t on it. The point, it seems, is to alienate, and pull back. But here, for a moment, there is an insubstantial light in the darkness. it offers no answers and leaves in a seemingly hopeless morass of cultural chaos. But it’s something.

Inconclusive

This record is a lot. And it’s designed to be a lot. It’s hypercritical and slightly too long and often mind-numbingly repetitive. It’s also beautiful and lush and feels very in character for Sufjan Stevens. Its grief is palpable and painful and the numbing feel like a way to stave off the true darkness latent in the record.

I did not divide this review into good and bad, because I have not yet determined whether this record is good and bad, based on the standards it sets for itself. Steven’s goals are accomplished, that much is undeniable. He successfully conveys all his points. But as an album, it’s so dour and hopeless and hard to get into by design. It runs against all the things I conventionally love

And it is not greater than the sum of its part. While The Age of Adz and Illinois sprawl, there is a sense of completeness to them. Carrie & Lowell sounds incomplete in a beautiful grieving way. But The Ascension falls somewhere uncomfortably in between.

So, in lieu of giving conventional good points and bad points, I’ll present these point ambiguously, because I have not yet concluded whether it’s one of Sufjan Steven’s greatest albums, or whether it’s not. Only continued listens will reveal one or the other.

I hope it’s the first one. Cause I always love when an artist ascends.

Until next time.

7,700,026,578 to 8,224,369,489 out of 10,000,000,000

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