Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Age of Adz: Album and Concert

Sufjan Stevens' proclamation of "electronica influence" for his newest album didn't exactly instill much confidence in many fans.  We want the solemn resilience of Michigan, the understated reverence of Seven Swans, the sincere exuberance of Illinois.  The very mention of "electronic" from an artist who'd build an indie empire out of acoustic, folk, and orchestral modalities just screams "now it is time for my seventh album and I am going to do some crazy experiments with it!"  And experiments go oft awry.

But hey, in 2003, if you'd asked me what I thought of a Ben Gibbard-"electronica" collaboration, I would have said that would be a bad idea too.  And I would have been very, very wrong.  So, bring on Age of Adz and all its electronic glory.

You can tell just by looking the cover that we're not getting the joyous proclamation of America that the Fifty States Project gave us.  Instead, it's raw emotion, something that Stevens dreamed up under some combination of influences including his disenchantment with his earlier, lyrical approach to songwriting; his battle with some mysterious disease over the last year or two; and the post-apocalyptic, schizophrenic art of Royal Robertson.  It's Robertson's treatment of the End of Days that colors a lot of the aesthetic on the album, including some downright "spacey" sound effects that would have seemed miserably out of place on any of Stevens' earlier records (even when the songs were about UFO's.)

At first, I was admittedly Not A Fan of Age of Adz.  I was such a massive fan of Stevens' earlier work--Illinois in particular is easily one of my top ten favorite albums--that any drastic departure from his earlier aesthetic was a change I just did not want to deal with.  Besides, when that change is to intentionally introduce dissonances and elements that make the music sound less good, I'm immediately biased against it.  (When Mae tried it, it didn't work out too well for them either.)

Then again, I was admittedly Not A Fan of All Delighted People, Stevens' ambush of an EP earlier this year... but I warmed up to it after only two or three listens.  In much the same way, I'm warming up to Age of Adz slowly but surely.  The thing to realize here is that Stevens' music is and always has been excellent because he's a master at arranging sound.  Whether that's the banjos and guitars of Michigan, the orchestral explosion of Illinois, or even the blips and buzzes of Age of Adz, Stevens is incredibly good at taking several different sorts of sound at once and putting them all together in a way that makes sense.

Age does have some standout tracks.  "Vesuvius," especially, has quickly become one of my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs ever.  Daring to use volcano imagery, the song begins slowly and quietly before erupting into an incredibly powerful message of following your heart and doing what you feel is right even in the face of dire consequences.  The title track "The Age of Adz," "I Walked," and "Too Much," are all quite good as well.  I'm less a fan of "Get Real Get Right" and "I Want to Be Well," which strike me as experiment for the sake of experimentation rather than for the sake of making interesting and innovative music.  But all in all, Age of Adz has good stuff on it if you know where to look.

So when I had the opportunity to see Sufjan Stevens live, even though I knew most of his material would be from Age, I figured I liked enough of the album that I'd be able to appreciate the live show.  And I'm glad I went.  Stevens doesn't exactly have the reputation for being conventional, and that showed as soon as he took stage--with a dozen people.  Among his retinue were two drummers, two trombone players, a handful of multi-instrumentalists, and two women who serves as both backup vocalists and streamer-waving dancers.  On top of all of that, a video screen behind the stage showed various cosmic and apocalyptic scenes taken from or inspired by Royal Robertson's work roughly synced to the music.  Spectacle is an important reason to see a live show, and Stevens absolutely nails it.

It's true that I'm feeling better about both All Delighted People and The Age of Adz than when I first heard either--and seeing songs from both live certainly helped me appreciate both better.  But it was still a little disappointing when all of Stevens' material save two songs came from either the EP or the recent album.  Of course, Sufjan played "Chicago"--even though this is the single most recognizable artifact of an era that he's clearly trying to distance himself from, there's no way Sufjan Stevens plays a concert and the fans let him get away with not playing "Chicago".  Stevens' encore started with the opening track from Illinois, which contains "UFO" and (in true circa-2005 Sufjan Stevens style) about ten other words, and it's a nice piano piece, but I would have liked even more Illinois throughout the show.

Though seeing most of the songs live helped me appreciate them better, I'm still not convinced that "Impossible Soul" is any good at all.  It's an oblique, 25-minute sprawl that closes the album, which Stevens referred (potentially tongue-in-cheek) to as his "magnum opus".  It's the potential tongue-in-cheek nature of this entire song that bothers me.  For a few miserable minutes in the middle of it, Stevens decides it's cool to use auto-tune.  This could be for one of two reasons: either he thinks this effect actually sounds good or he's going for a supremely hipster irony in smugly referencing a pop music phenomenon.  The first reason is simply incorrect; the second is actually more dangerous because it represents a departure from the deeply emotional sincerity we've come to expect from Sufjan Stevens.

Much like a metaphor for the entire album, "Impossible Soul" has its good parts, its parts I could do without, and its parts I can't really stand to listen to.  The Age of Adz is something I can get used to--but that means it's strictly worse than Illinois, which was utterly brilliant the first time I listened to it and has remained equally as utterly brilliant the dozens of times I've listened to it since.  As I've said before, Sufjan Stevens will not and should not be an artist who re-releases Illinois six times, puts his feet up on his desk, and sips cognac.  But we wouldn't mind it if he decided to release, say, Arkansas instead of Some Galaxy Following a Supernova.

Currently listening: "Adlai Stevenson", Sufjan Stevens

No comments: