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SUFJAN STEVENS The Ascension gets 8/10


Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension
Asthmatic Kitty/Inertia

8/10

I have listened to this album.

I have listened to it many times. (This is no small feat; it’s over 80 minutes long!) I have dedicated literal days of my life to deciphering the intricate semiotics of The Ascension, the latest Sufjan Stevens album. Such is the seriousness with which I take my duties.

As an entree, Stevens takes uncharacteristic inspiration from the world of organised crime with Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse. (I can’t help but feel the malignancy in the White House has contaminated even the pure soul of Sufjan Stevens.) “I have lost my patience​,” ​he says. He pleads something, someone “move me… move through me”. The song bursts into a desperate alarm call of brittle electronic sounds like it is building toward disaster….

Until we slip into something more typical of Stevens’ gentle folktronica: Run Away With Me, he asks. A fairly classic love song; all easy beats, smooth chords, and layered vocals.

Thus the pendulum swings back and forth for the rest of the album. Chaos then recovery; disquiet then soothing. There are dark themes here (which is typical of Stevens) and many songs about longing, and there is something detached and existential about the problems of The Ascension as it ducks and weaves.

There is social commentary and challenges to the 21st century status quo in Video Game. Stevens has bad news. He does not want to play your video game (this is less an indictment of Grand Theft Auto, but of social media – a Game of Videos).

Track seven is named after a fast acting sedative often prescribed for panic disorder, “tranquilize me and revise me. Ativan,” before veering off into more scratchy alarm sounds followed by a lamentation on strings punctuated with a drum that sounds like an anxious heartbeat.

Early listenings of The Ascension conjured themes of frustration and annoyance, which was a hard pill to swallow from an artist who has reliably delivered mercy and self-depreciation to date. This album can be perplexing: just as you settle in for the rising chords and harmonies, a rough squeak or truncated sample snaps you back. But if you stay the course (and it isn’t difficult), the soothing balm towards the end of the album (particularly the title track) will bring you back.

Just in time for America, twelve and a half minutes of Stevens’ most profound disillusionment with his country. Stevens pleads with someone (God?) “don’t do to me what you did to America”. Given the Christian themes in his music, you can imagine this is a cry to the Heavens by a long-suffering and wounded Son. By the end, you get the sense he isn’t angry… just disappointed.

There is substantial pearl here, but something of the grit that made it as well. It has Sufjan Stevens’ fingerprints all over it and, if you love him, you will not be disappointed. All your favourites are here: the lush instrumentation; the breathy, sweet voice, solo or as a choral layering – a peck of Sufjans; the appeals to God; the experimental late-90s electronica with melodic synths which surge, transcendent and tentative in equal measure.

But where the old Sufjan would have built to a crescendo that would have you seeing angels or break your heart completely with a turn of phrase, these songs twist darkly into a minor key or repeat mechanically. Drum lines sound like a cutlery drawer being kicked down the stairs. You could probably dance to it in places, but given he’s decrying the moral bankruptcy of our age, you might not want to.

As I said, I have listened to this album, over and over. I have found it like a Frederick McCubbin painting. It is a deftly rendered mise-en-scène, which softens and reveals more the longer you look.

CARLA STAGLES​

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