Sufjan Stevens’ “Age of Adz” Review

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Sufjan Stevens broke his 5-year silence about two weeks ago with his new album, “Age of Adz”.  Since releasing “Michigan” in 2005, the artist has been hard at work with contributing to albums of otehr artists while at the same time formulating the new record. Though the entire CD has been on NPR for a few weeks, the new album is completely fresh in style and content. Trading in his banjo for synthesizers and a heavy drum beat, Stevens’ industrial style parallels the modern age. The new noise is reminiscent of sharp angles, cranks and gears, like a collection of sound bytes from a warehouse.

After listening to the entire album, however, some questions are left unanswered. During his concert at The Long Center on Tuesday, October 19th,  some of those questions were answered. Stevens played mainly his new album, explaining his motivations, inspirations, and goals of the album. By examining the songs and their content and comparing them to Stevens’ commentary, the new album can be more easily deconstructed.

After the first song of the show, where Stevens played an apocalyptic-feeling Seven Swans where the lights shined bright red and white, he prefaced the material from “Age of Adz” by talking about how this album is different from the others because he began by “writing from sounds first”, where he started with the instrumentals and went back wrote the lyrics for the sound. Illustrating the honesty of the album, Stevens details how this new writing style and synthesizer sound was out of his comfort zone.

“Futile Devices”, a short intro melody to the new album made with gentle guitar picking, a casio and echoey vocals, is similar to his older music, but the album goes on to “Too Much”, a song full of synthesizers, electrical sounds, and mechanical clapping. Though the songs’ vocals are simple, the wide range of mechanical sounds are easily juxtaposed with the upbeat flutes and the subtle orchestral arrangement.

Futile Devices- Sufjan Stevens

The title song, “Age of Adz”, begins with a few beeps then and sounds like a terrifying machine with hydraulics starting up. Background vocals break the motorized sounds and bring in the human element. Trumpets frame the chorus and a choir of voices echoes Stevens’ voice through the song.  At the end of the song, when the machine sounds cease, Sufjan’s honest voice comes through with some light guitar picking and satisfy the taste of the audience who are seasoned Stevens listeners.

“I Walked”, a slow jam with a solid beat and angelic voices, is a song probably something about love lost, about what Stevens did after the realization of this love, and about his slow decline. After the first verse, synthesizers interject with a melody that compliments Stevens’ vocals. The intriguing beat seems to be off during the verses but comes together in the chorus, and perhaps this complicated and confusing beat was meant to be paired as such with the content of the lyrics.  Overall, the song is my favorite of the album.

I Walked- Sufjan Stevens

The fifth song on the album, “Now That I’m Older”, begins with chilling piano playing and gentle wailing, that is made ghostly with the vibrato in the voices. Stevens’ distinct voice comes in after about a minute and a half, his unhurried voice layered over itself a few times, each one doing something a bit different.

“Get Real, Get Right” begins with some heavy drum beats and syth notes. According to Stevens, the song is dedicated to the “mysterious and profound” sign-painter, Royal Robertson, who died in 1997 at age 60. Robertson was much of Stevens’ inspiration for the album, with his (Robertson’s) interest and his art reflecting the apocalypse, aliens, Bible references, and prophesies. After divorcing his wife, Robertson became schizophrenic and madly covering every piece of paper with things from his imagination. The song advises Robertson to “get real, get right” and then takes on the perspective of Robertson at the end, where he is telling himself to snap out of his slow decline.

Perhaps one of the most popular songs on the album, “Vesuvius” is Stevens’ hymn to nature, and, as he prefaces the song, “giving yourself over to the magnificence of nature”. During the show, the song started with an opaque screen was down in-front of the entire stage, allowing Stevens to be seen and still to project volcanic cartoon images onto it, and creating a 3D effect with the visuals in the back of the stage. The song is littered with syth sounds and drum beats as well as the signature flutes which appeared on his many of his past albums, and perhaps most prominent in the Christmas album. During the epic song, Stevens also inserts himself into the drama by telling himself to “follow the path…/follow the flame/or fall on the floor”, showing that this idea of giving yourself to nature is terrifying and yet powerful.

The last song of the album, a 25-minute self-proclaimed “psychotherapy session” is perhaps one of the most intriguing songs of the album. “Impossible Soul” is a ballad to a lover, who deeply knows the subject. A giant diamond-shaped poster floated down during the middle of the song, while Stevens debuted his first ever auto-tune on an album. Though he lost me for a bit with the lighthearted costume that he and his band members wore for a few minutes doring the middle of the song, he brought me right back in at about the 15-minute mark. The end of the song is less digitized, with guitar picking and an upbeat chorus.

Overall, the show was everything that I had ever dreamed it would be, with the visuals and the band’s stage presence, and after being a Sufjan fan for about 5 years, it was about time to see this musical genius in concert. Even if you are expecting something like “Illinoise”, it still has some similarities that link it back to previous albums.  Check out “Age of Adz”, and let your brain be taken over by the chaotic and complicated melodies.

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