Sunday, December 19, 2010

Albums of 2010: The Age of Adz

As the end of the year approaches, I thought I'd cast an eye over some of my favourite music released this year. This is not intended to be the Definitive Guide To 2010 or anything - I've not listened to anywhere near enough of this year's music to be able to make that claim. It's just a series of reviews of stuff I like. Keep checking in over the next week & a bit for more entries...

It's been, as nearly every review has reminded us, five years since Sufjan Stevens' last 'proper' album, the much-lauded Come on Feel the Illinois. Since then, he's released a boxset of Christmas music EPs, an album of Illinois out-takes, and the orchestral piece/film The BQE, and also admitted that the 50 States Project was probably not going to get past the first two entries. In August he suddenly released a 60 minute EP, All Delighted People, and then a week later announced the October release of a full album, The Age of Adz. From that first press release on, Stevens made it clear that this album would be heavily electronic-based, largely eschewing the banjo-led folk-pop-rock that dominated his three most famous albums (Greetings From Michigan, Seven Swans, Come on Feel the Illinois). On the other hand, his second album (Enjoy Your Rabbit) was an electronic-based instrumental affair, so there was some precedent.

Still, most casual Sufjan Stevens will probably find The Age of Adz difficult to immediately love. Not only has he significantly changed his sonic palette, but here we see an album of intensely personal songs. Some time after hearing The Age of Adz I read that Stevens was badly - & somewhat mysteriously - unwell for a period in 2009, but that came as no great surprise to anyone who'd listened to the album at all attentively. (Or, for that matter, noted that the penultimate track is called 'I Want To Be Well'...)

The Age of Adz begins softly, with the piano-&-vocal 'Futile Devices', probably the most familiar-sounding song here. While he has, mostly, smothered his songs in old-school synths & electronics throughout, Stevens' ear for a simple, beautiful melody has neither deserted him nor been deliberately discarded. In more ways than one, 'Futile Devices' serves as an effective introduction to the album, given that the devices he describes as futile are words. Next up is the squelchy electronics of 'Too Much', and the big title track. 'Age of Adz' features all manner of sounds competing with each other, creating a disorienting feel.

'I Walked' was the first song released from The Age of Adz, as a free download from Stevens' website, and is one of the album's highlights for me. Sparse, especially compared to its predecessor, 'I Walked' is a nakedly vulnerable song, with Stevens' voice catching on the line "But at least I deserved the respect of a kiss goodbye" (one of several indications throughout the album that Stevens' romantic life hasn't been entirely painless in recent years), in a way that hasn't yet ceased being heartbreaking every time. 'Now That I'm Older', 'Get Real Get Right' & 'Bad Communication' form a mid-album mini-suite noting Stevens' determination to take stock of himself and move on.

That impression is strengthened with 'Vesuvius', in which he takes the drastic step of addressing himself:
Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame
Or fall on the floor
Sufjan, the panic inside
The murdering ghost
That you cannot ignore

The song itself builds from a quiet, piano-only, start, adding layers of backing singers, low-tech beats and increasingly multi-tracked lead vocals. And The Age of Adz's theme of trying to be happy despite things not going well is hit again in 'All For Myself':
Improving all the time, I am
Improving as I kiss the hem
I promise I won't be a trouble at all
For I'm okay, I'm in the red

After which we get to the album's monumental final two tracks: the aforementioned 'I Want To Be Well', and 'Impossible Soul'. The former is another explicit (in more ways than one!) plea for life to get its act together. It climaxes, after numerous repetitions of the title phrase, with the repeated claim: "I'm not fucking around", Stevens' first recorded lyrical swearing. His nice-guy persona makes 'I Want To Be Well's finale all the more effective and emphatic.

And then we have 'Impossible Soul', 25 minutes of everything that every happened. (One review I read suggested that this song contained more ideas than many bands' entire careers...) It begins quietly, and beautifully, with a passage that will warm the hearts of Illinois-lovers feeling lost on this album. That builds and builds, before breaking down completely at about the ten-minute mark. From there, Stevens single-handedly redeems Autotune's existence, filtering his voice for the next few minutes over a sparse backing before the track once again builds to its triumphant conclusion:
It's a long life, better pinch yourself,
Put your face together, better get it right
It's a long life, better hit yourself
Put your face together, better stand up straight
It's a long life, only one last chance
Couldn't get much better, do you wanna dance?
It's a long life, better pinch yourself
Get your face together, better stand up straight

The album finishes (in its cd & download versions, the vinyl shifts this bit to the end of side three, following 'I Want To Be Well', for space on side four reasons) with a quiet coda, not dissimilar to Illinois's 'John Wayne Gacy Jr', and coming full circle from 'Futile Devices'.

The Age of Adz is not an easy album, emotionally or musically, and I'm sure it will not attract everyone who loved Stevens' last few albums. It is, however, a wonderful album, highlighting personal turmoil but also building a defiant response to that. And Stevens is one of the most talented composers and arrangers in modern music - as well as possessing a beautiful voice and considerable instrumental versatility. The Age of Adz gets my highest recommendation.