Age Of Adz is the biggest curveball Sufjan Stevens will ever throw. To label it thus still feels like a bit of an understatement. Since most of us were drawn to Sufjan Stevens by the Michigan and Illinois albums, it was easy to assume he was always going to be the orchestral folk/pop maestro. Indeed, since he originally planned to record an album for all of the 50 States, he seemed destined to stay in this style for the remainder of his career. Moreover, the astonishing quality and originality of these albums made it hard to accept that he might someday leave this sound behind and attempt new things. After all, Illinois is one of the best albums ever made; who wouldn't want 48 more? Right?
Well, no. Deep down we all knew he couldn't deliver on such a promise, though the speed with which he abandoned both the 50 States project and its style is still a surprise, at least to me. Sufjan has been going through a period of personal and creative wandering since roughly 2007, releasing a combination film/album tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to modest fanfare and mostly working behind the scenes at his record label, Asthmatic Kitty. After a short tour last Fall, during which he performed some new, more experimental material, he surprised everyone by releasing a new EP without warning earlier this year. All Delighted People was a welcome return to pop music after the orchestral The BQE, but I found its mix of old style folky songs and new out-there epics to be a mixed bag. Luckily he soon announced a new album...
Which brings us up to speed, and thus to Age Of Adz. Going even further with the heavily electronic and electric guitar based tracks of All Delighted People, this album is easily the most experimental and chance taking of his career (not to mention the year in music). I saw him in concert a week ago, and his ten piece band and stage show often resembled the Flaming Lips as much anything else. The music oozed and breathed with heavy beats, pounding drums, shout-along vocals, deep hooks, and Sufjan switching between guitar spasms, pounding away at a keyboard/sampler, and busting out white boy dance moves. Hell, he even donned sunglasses and used a vocoder/auto-tuner, recalling Kanye West and Daft Punk far more than the tender fellow who crooned about driving to Chicago in a van with his friends.
Whatever you end up feeling about Adz (my friend Pat, a diehard Sufjanian, hated the concert and by extension this new album), it'd be hard to argue that this is one of the last moves anyone expected Sufjan to make. Detractors so often pinned him as a wimp who had a voice like a wounded bird that to hear him throwing around lyrics like “do you wanna dance?” and “I'm not fucking around” would have to be a joke. Yet here we are, and while I laughed a lot at the concert, it was with him instead of at him. Despite the continued apocalyptic dread and the break-up vibe carried over from the EP, which it turns out was inspired by outsider artist Royal Robertson, he sounds and acts like a man who has come out of, or is coming out of, a period of great personal and creative struggles. More crucially, he now sounds and acts like a man who wants to have fun with music while still pushing himself creatively.
The strange dichotomy between the dark subject matter and engaging, fresh music is mirrored in the sound of Age Of Adz. Retaining a good deal more of his orchestral flourishes and sullen acoustic stuff than one might assume, the album nevertheless is undoubtedly all about the heavy electronic stuff. Come to think of it, this album reminds me quite a bit of Owen Pallett's recent Heartland album, combining classical and electronic music as it did. Anyway, at the show, Sufjan thanked the audience for indulging his new material, explaining that he had moved from heavily composed and thought-out music to a more spontaneous and instinctual style based as much on sounds and textures as traditional pop songwriting. To that end, even the shorter, seemingly more “traditional” tracks of Adz are weird by Illinois standards. 'Now That I'm Older' is like being stuck in an echo-y chamber full of vocals, a piano, and some lovingly plucked string instruments; for as many keyboard bloops and swooshes as it has, 'Bad Communication' may as well be a sped up Stereolab song. 'All For Myself' is something else entirely, a damaged electro/choral pop tune that blurts in and out of loudness like a record skipping or a stuttering loop, and reminds me of nothing else in the world except 'Cuckoo Cuckoo' by Animal Collective. Maybe that's grasping at straws, but if you had told me this time last year that I would be comparing Sufjan to Animal Collective, I'd have assumed the album is question is the worst thing ever or the best.
The reason Age Of Adz will go down in history in people's minds as one of those two options is the longer tracks. Listening to the whole album with a good pair of headphones is a good idea, since there's so much detail and density that can otherwise be lost, but for songs like the title track and 'Vesuvius', they're downright mandatory. Sufjan's previous albums utilized dozens of instruments, true, but they rarely sounded as full and powerful as the slow burning hooks and peaks of Adz. And thanks to 'Impossible Soul', this album matches if not bests Illinois in terms of ambition and scope. It initially sounds all over the place and as much of a mess as All Delighted People, but these complaints soon metamorphose into positives. You've really got to sit with Adz and give it a chance. Take a few trips down its strange, all-encompassing highway to get a better sense of its boundaries and it starts to sound more cohesive and sensible than anything this long and out-there has a right to be.
While I don't think Age Of Adz is an unqualified success, it is, if nothing else, the kind of album he needed to make at this point in his life if he still wants to have a career. What I mean is, churning out Illinois sequels would be fine, but it would limit his growth as an artist. Since Adz ends with the 25 minute epic-to-end-all-Sufjan-epics 'Impossible Soul', he has certainly made up his mind regarding growth and trying new things. As a result, this is an exhausting and not always consistent record, but it rewards those open minded listeners who stick with it. Where All Delighted People merely appeased and bored, Adz is sure to elicit extreme reactions: I think it's his best album that isn't called Illinois, and my friend Pat hates it. So there you go.
Age Of Adz is an unwieldly mess of an album; it is flawed, challenging, and indulgent. But Adz is also a fascinating, brilliant, and rewarding monolith from a gifted artist with vision and guts to spare. Whatever your opinion of it, there's no arguing that it is easily the most chance-takingly different record of 2010. Hell, it makes Congratulations by MGMT seem safe by comparison! But I digress. No matter how it will be contextualized by future Sufjan Stevens releases, Adz should rightfully go down in history as one of those moments where an artist threw most of their playbook out the window and made music in a different way, sonically and structurally. This is Sufjan Stevens's Kid A. Grandiose claim that it may be, I can't think of another time in recent memory that someone stepped so far outside of their usual modus operandi but still retained their identity. Anyway, I love Kid A just as much as I do OK Computer, so why can't I love Age Of Adz as much as Illinois? I've got the room in my heart and the time to enjoy both. To paraphrase Sufjan, it's a long life; do you want to dance?
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5