The musical palette of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens is one that is ever expanding, all-inclusive and awe-inspiring. One can never be sure what he’s up to at any point in time. Whether it’s an instrumental album or an album about a state of which he is fond, which was the case for his 2003 album “Michigan” and his 2005 release “Illinois,” Sufjan Stevens seems to be constantly at work. For his sixth studio album entitled “The Age of Adz,” Stevens decided to go in a direction that no one really expected. On his previous albums, he’s tended to tote the traditional acoustic guitar and banjo, with a choir or two in the background for good measure. He has also favored soft, whispery vocals in the tracks of his previous albums. This time he dropped the strings, kept the choir, picked up a synthesizer, and started yelling a bit more.
The first track on the album, “Futile Devices,” is a beautiful track. Short but sweet, the track employs simplistic lyrical style and pairs soft and lilting piano with floating guitar. This is a misleading first track, however.
The second track, “Too Much,” starts with some electro-noise blurbs, followed by a jaggedly catchy synthesizer melody. This sounds much like a typical Sufjan song aside from the music, which seems like its exploding and shooting off into different directions in the background.
The title track “The Age of Adz” is an eerie track crammed with so many unidentifiable, creepy background noises that is sounds like an old sci-fi movie or something. The vocals are synthesized; the choir hangs out in the background for the occasional refrain, and some brass instruments show up here and there to make it extra ominous. This is an extremely interesting and complex 8-minute track. I don’t see how he does it.
The next track that I really enjoyed was “Now that I’m Older.” The song opens up with the characteristic choir floating up into the rafters of some cathedral. He really has some talented ladies in his crew, and their voices are a wonderful addition to the chaos. This song doesn’t have much of a traditional melody, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Sufjan’s voice moans and yelps all over the place. He layers the abrasive sounds of his voice with the pure and pitch-perfect vocals of the choirgirls, and the sound is really dense and unique.
“Vesuvius” is probably my favorite track on the album. It’s the closest thing to a typical Sufjan song. Soft keys hold down the song while electronic noise darts from headphone to headphone next to screeching synth guitar. Sufjan suffered from a severe virus last year that put him in poor health, so I think this song is how he translated what he went through.
“I probably shouldn’t go into the gory details of what I went through,” Sufjan told pitchfork.com, “but I will say that I did get very sick last year and had some serious health issues that were really confusing and mysterious and debilitating. It was a virus I had that affected my nervous system and I no longer had control of my responses to circumstances and events…It was really bizarre.”
The last song that I wanted to mention is “I Want to Be Well.” This song is most definitely not a classic-style Sufjan song. The music is very choppy and quick. Flutes soar and an array of other cryptic sounds dance around Sufjan’s lonely voice. This took me by surprise because Sufjan really lets loose and disproves what people think of him. He’s been known as indie music’s poster child of all things cute and nice. In this track, however, he gets darker and even curses about twenty times toward the end.
This is such a well-rounded, bizarre complex installment in Sufjan’s catalogue. After hearing this it’s easy to tell that Sufjan can make any kind of music.and make that music uniquely his own. He sounds like no one else, and no one else can imitate. This is a fantastic album. Five stars, Sufjan, old boy.