Return of the King So, I think we are all agreed that Sufjan is pretty much the best.  Wheat, you touched on a lot of the reasons, and I’ll add a few of my own:

  1. He’s about as unlike a rock star (in all the right ways) as you can be.  You see pictures of him, and he’s wearing a t-shirt with a hole in it, and he looks like someone stole his comb, and he looks at you with his soulful eyes, and you just want to take him home and feed him some soup and tell him that everything’s going to be all right or something.  I mean, look at the guy:
  2. Can someone get this man a brush?
  3. And then there’s his tender, delicate, quavery, whispery voice, which is about unlike the powerfully, yawping vocal style that we’ve come to expect from our rock stars.  He’s the unapologetic un-rock star.
  4. Because of this, he does seem like someone you could sit down and talk to about life and Harry Potter novels and what’s your favorite Arrested Development episode? and are you a fan of opera, Sufjan? and wasn’t the Social Network so good? and are you hydroscopic? and whatever.  He seems like your pal, Sufjan.  The artsy one with the weird name and the girls all like him and he’s really into World of Warcraft or something.  We should start a band.
  5. And he’s a Christian artist, but not like a Contemporary Christian artist (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Since I am a polar molecule who does love art and culture and new and exciting music and films and novels and whose faith is important to him, well, finding a thoughtful Christian artist who incorporates spiritual themes into his music without writing what I like to call “make out with Jesus” songs, is like finding an ice cold Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper sitting on the side of the road as you stumble, alone, through the desert, after your car broke down.  (This is pretty much the best analogy ever).  Maybe this shouldn’t be such a big deal, but, for me, this is a very big deal, and it’s a big part of why Sufjan means so much to me.  He’s our guy.  I mean, we had Jars of Clay in the 90’s, and they were great! (Love you guys, really), and there have been other talented Christian musicians (Over the Rhine, for example.  Also so great), but Sufjan is different, because
  6. He is probably the most gifted songwriter and composer of his generation. Look, I’m just a simple inorganic compound that’s essential to life.  I’m not a musicologist and I don’t work for pitchfork.com, so I’m probably not qualified to make a pronouncement like this, but I do listen to a LOT of music, and I think that Sufjan is has an unsurpassed combination of talents for melody, arrangement, lyricism,  and tone color.  The last minute or so of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” may be the most beautiful and heart-breaking music anyone’s written in the last twenty years.  Add to that his relentless creativity, and I don’t think any current popular musician can match him.
  7. And, above all this, his last album, Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, is the best.*  Pretty much ever.   Well, maybe not ever, but it’s one of the four greatest albums of the last 25 years, along with The Joshua Tree, OK Computer, and The Suburbs.**  If anyone hasn’t heard Illinoise, well . . . I mean, what are you doing wasting your time reading this?  Go to itunes, download it, call in sick tomorrow, and listen to it about ten times in a row.  Go ahead, I’ll wait. . . . See what I mean?  It’s about Illinois, but it’s really about all of humanity and creation and life and death and love and loss and, well, everything, and it’s just the most beautiful and incredible thing imaginable.***
  8. *Okay, so he’s released about 10 albums since Illinoise, but including one earlier this year, but it’s his last real album.
    **More on that to come in a later post.
    ***It also mentions rivers and lakes, so, you know, bonus points there.
  9. Oh, yeah, then there’s this.

Kid AdzSo, for all of us, I think, Age of Adz is kind of a big deal.  After Illinoise, Sufjan released some Christmas albums, and composed a symphony or something about a freeway, but five years passed with no proper follow up.  Then, he told Paste Magazine that he was retiring from writing popular music, and Water was sad:

Bummer, dude!

So, now that we have it, what do I think?

Well, it’s really, really good.  Probably one of the five best albums of this year.  It’s haunting, beautiful, dramatic, challenging, intensely personal (almost suffocatingly so), and different from anything else your likely to hear any time soon.

It’s not really at all what I expected.  With a name like Age of Adz, I expected the album to be a sort of sweeping epic about the commercialism of our times and how we live in the age of ads and we’re caught in a cycle of consumerism and materialism and buying things we don’t need.  Instead, it’s almost uncomfortably, voyeuristically, intimate.  Every song is a conversation, and they feature confessions of love, angry pleading, words of regret, and words of affirmation.  It seems to take place in a cozy room with only two people, shutters drawn and doors closed, with one person laying his soul bare before the other.  Far from an epic about modern society, it seems unconcerned with the goings-on of the world at large.

"I think that came out wrong."

What’s it about?Well, have you ever tried to say something important to someone you love, and the words wouldn’t come out right?  Pretty much every conversation I have with my dad is like that.  Well, that’s a major theme in Age of Adz.  In the first song, “Futile Devices,” Sufjan*, after fumbling to declare his love, says that “words are futile devices.” This theme reappears throughout:

  • From “Too Much:”  “Maybe I’m talking too fast.  Maybe I’m talking too much.”
  • In “I Walked,” Sufjan tries to explain himself although he knows it’s too late and he’s “already dead” to his beloved.
  • In “Now That I’m Older,” Sufjan seems to struggle throughout with being understood:  “Don’t get it wrong, don’t get excited.”
  • “Bad Communication” is about, well, bad communication, and serves also a reprise of “Futile Devices.”  Sufjan begins “I’ll talk but I know you won’t listen to me,” and then tries, in different ways to say I love you.
Despite these difficulties, and the inevitable violence that we do to each other when we try to communicate (the image of lovers stabbing one another appears at least twice in the album), Sufjan is committed to living with, and striving to express himself to, his beloved.  He wants to “get real, get right with the Lord,” he “want[s] to be well (and he’s not f-ing around),” and he’s going to “give it all he’s got.” *I should really say “the narrator,” but, given the intimacy of the songs, I think it’s safe to assume Sufjan identifies himself with the narrator.

This idea reaches a glorious, sprawling climax in the album’s 25-minute closer, “Impossible Soul.”  In the first of the song’s five movements (seriously), Sufjan tells his beloved that he is “freaking out” because he “could not get you at all.”  But frustration finally gives way to the realization that what he thought he wanted isn’t what he wanted at all and that he was trying to be someone he’s not.  In the second movement, the beloved finally responds and asks Sufjan if he is going to let his fear distract him from trying to truly love her.  Then, in the third movement, Sufjan’s realizes that he has never been able to simply rest and enjoy the things that matter in life.  The fourth movement is the climax of the climax, a celebratory chorus proclaiming that, despite the horrible ways relationships and communication can fail, we can still “do much more together,” and “it’s not so impossible.”  This really is a remarkable affirmation in the context of an album that has done its best to show just how impossible meaningful communication can be at times.  Finally, to show that this newfound resolution is being entered into with eyes open, the fifth movement concludes by saying “boy, we made such a mess together.”

The album is also about Sufjan’s own journey from the young genius who wrote Illinoise to the older artist he is now.  After all, he had declared himself retired from popular music, and, as you can see in this interview with Paste Magazine, he was pretty burnt out from the attention Illinoise garnered.  Who is he struggling to communicate with if not his own audience?  If he really “no longer has faith in the song” as he said, then what new form can he find to speak to his audience?  An audience he loves but, at the same time, feels wounded by and struggles to communicate with.  Age of Adz is Sufjan’s attempt to reconcile with his listeners, laying bare his impossible soul to us and asking us if we can still love him.  I say, welcome back, big guy.

Ultimately, I think this is a transitional album for Sufjan.  Brilliant as it is, it doesn’t match the quality of IllinoiseAge of Adz has no song which approaches the beauty and greatness of the best five songs on Illinoise.  Sufjan is at his best as a songwriter when he’s telling stories, and that’s what Illinoise was about.  Age of Adz, on the other hand, is about raw emotion.  It’s Sufjan cleansing his system and finding a new way to communicate with his beloved.

Wheat, you glutenous grain, you say that Age of Adz reminds you of OK Computer, but I see it more as Sufjan’s Kid A.  With OK Computer, Radiohead created a masterpiece, but they found that they had gone as far as they could within the template of a rock album.  So, rather than forging ahead, they hooked a left and went on a different path with Kid A.*  I think Sufjan found himself in a similar position after Illinoise.  “Am I really going to grind out a bunch of albums full of flutes and violins and flugelhorns and choruses for the rest of my career?”  Nope.  Time to hook a left and do something different.

"Did I miss my exit?"
*This seems to be a pretty common pattern.  Achtung, Baby! almost didn’t happen, and, when it did, was a much different sounding album than Joshua Tree.  It will be interesting to see how Arcade Fire follow up on The Suburbs.  U2 and Radiohead moved back closer to their roots later in their careers, and it should be fun to see if these younger artists do the same. Odds and Ends

I definitely hadn’t seen (heard?) Wheat’s Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon thing coming, though I do think it’s odd (no pun intended) that Adz is pronounced ODDS, which, granted, is pretty close to Oz.  I may have to check that out.  I think if I was a super music genius I’d make an album that secretly synced up with Dr. Strangelove.  That’s a good question, which movie would you secretly sync up your mind-blowing album to if you were a super music genius?

This is neither here nor there,* but I thought it strange that, in “Age of Adz” (the song) Sufjan, after talking about eternal living, says that he will rot when he dies, when, kind of the point of Christianity is that we will not rot or that we will at least be given new bodies after we do rot.  I don’t know, it just seemed like an odd thing to say in a song affirming eternal living and giving it all you’ve got and whatnot.  Like I said, neither here nor there.

* Where is it, then?  Only in my bizarre brain, which is definitely neither here nor there.

I don’t think I’ll ever like the autotune.  I try to keep an open mind about these things, but, when I heard the autotuned section in “Impossible Soul,” I about puked.  I think it can’t overcome the taint of Kid Rock and Lil’ Wayne in my mind.

I really wish Sufjan had broken “Impossible Soul” into five parts.  The first movement is the best song on the album, but, sadly, you can’t just enjoy it without the other 20 minutes.  The fourth movement is also terrific, but I think the other three are subpar.

Okay, that’s about a tenth of my thoughts on the fascinating Mr. Stevens and his album.  I’ll save you from having to sort through the rest of them.