Hey, everyone, I’m Ben. I’m one of the new music directors here at WIUX, so I wanted to create a recurring segment here on the website. Ben’s Hot Takes (Definitely not trademarked) is a title that is going to be mainly ironic for this article due to the fact that this one is pretty lukewarm. I listen to a lot of music, so if you want to send me something to formulate an opinion on something, please send me anything at Bkessler@wiux.org with the subject: “Ben’s Hot Takes” and I’ll try my best!
I feel like I should establish my cred before I write this article about Sufjan Stevens. According to Spotify, Sufjan Stevens is my most listened to artist of 2015. If there are any questions about favorite songs by him, I have to say top five (no particular order) are: “Impossible Soul”, “They Also Mourn Those Who Do Not Wear Black”, “Djohariah”, “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades is Out To Get Us”, and “Romulus” weird, I know. Top three albums (in order) are Illinois, Age of Adz, and Michigan. Lastly, my profile picture on facebook used to be me at a Sufjan Stevens concert at Pitchfork 2016. THIS IS JUST MY OPINION (Mary Luncsford) I DON’T WANT ANYONE MAD AT ME. Okay, on to the article.
When you’re thinking about Sufjan Stevens as an artist, what albums do you think the words, “Now that’s classic Sufjan”? Illinois? Michigan? Carrie & Lowell? (If you’re bold) The BQE? I don’t think those are; I think the most Sufjan album must be Age of Adz.
Now hear me out! You may have heard Age of Adz and thought to yourself, “That was the weirdest album he has ever come out with, a departure from his original style! How can that possibly be thought of as his most ‘Classic’ album? It sounds nothing like anything else he has written before.” and I would like to thank you imaginary straw man I made up for this argument (AKA Mary Luncsford 🙁 ), you’re right. Age of Adz is a departure from the regular canon of his works. It’s not even my favorite of his albums.
There are a couple of reasons I believe that this is the most quintessential Sufjan album:
- Overproduction at his finest
- Emotionally-charged lyrics
- Delightfully weird
- Soft spoken at the correct time
- (weak point) Electronic roots (I’m not going to spend much time on this one because this article is going to be very long)
Overproduction at his finest:
If we try to look back at his discography before and after the album in question there’s quite a lot of examples that can be taken in regards to his overproduction. If you look at songs like “Detroit” or “Chicago” (also any song from the BQE) from albums before it, or if you look at songs in albums afterward like “All Delighted People” or any of the new singles, you can see the amount of planning and instrumentation that go into the creation of a single song.
Let us take the song “Detroit” for example. It has an introduction of bells, a centerpiece of horns and choir, a bridge of a piano solo, and ends with a long refrain of strings. If that is not throwing every instrument in the kitchen sink, I don’t know what is. Now the same argument can be made for Age of Adz, but if we take the titular track as an example, we receive almost the same analysis. Sufjan produces a song that is more bombastic but still has many different moving pieces of which he meticulously keeps track.
Sufjan is able to vary this overproduction throughout the album, making each song seem fresh. The only difference between his overproduction on this album in comparison to those of Illinois and Michigan is that this album has a base in electronic music. The electronic base gives Sufjan a jumping off point to create music that fits the theme that he set out for the album as a whole. The artwork of the album is of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, and the entire album seems to follow the artistry (and the story behind it) as its central theme (more on that in point # 3).
If you were to describe Sufjan’s music to me, you would arrive at emotionally-charged within the first couple of adjectives. Rather than exploring stories that can be created from previous events, as his previous works explore, Sufjan is exploring his emotions more directly. Addressing his feelings directly is something that he explores thoroughly throughout Carrie and Lowell. Sufjan expresses feelings of longing and anger (rarely ever expressed in any of his music) in songs like “Futile Devices” and “I Want To Be Well” respectively. “Futile Devices” is about trying to tell someone your feelings, but not having the words or the courage to say anything.
And I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard
So I won’t say it at all
And I won’t stay very long
But you are the life I needed all along
I think of you as my brother
Although that sounds dumb
Words are futile devices
“I Want To Be Well” is about anger caused by an illness he has no control over, a la Royal Robertson again.
Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, illness is watching, waiting its turn.
Did I go at it wrong?
Did I go intentionally to destroy me?
I’m suffering in noise I’m suffering in – (touching ordinary body)
The burning from within the burning from with – (ordinary is scary now)
I could not be at rest, I could not be at peace – (extraordinary is scary now)
I think that this is the best time to address the elephant in the room: Impossible Soul. Yes, this song is 25 minutes and 35 seconds long. Yes, this song has five distinct parts. Yes, I love this song too much for my own good. “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute ballad about going through a break-up and getting over someone you loved while he himself was impossible to love in the first place. The song moves from the original break-up, to fear of being alone, to being depressed in your own house, to getting back out there, to looking back on the experience as a whole. In the end of the song, there is a bit of quiet reflection of the entire experience as a whole.
I’m nothing but a selfish man
I’m nothing but a privileged peddler
And did you think I’d stay the night?
And did you think I’d love you forever?
And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more together
Having songs with such a great range of emotions is what Sufjan Stevens is about, and I think that Age of Adz is able to encapsulate this sentiment well.
Sufjan seems to do what he wants when he wants. That’s only the opinion from an outsider’s perspective, yet he shows this throughout his entire discography. With two separate Christmas albums, an electronic album (Along with his side project Sisyphus with Son Lux and Serengeti), a classical music album, and an upcoming album that seems to be about the planets in our solar system; Sufjan is a little bit out there. It seems fitting that he would create an album about Schizophrenia and the feelings that may be associated with the loose theme. Every song is pretty weird looking at them for the first time from only listening to previous Sufjan works, but, actually, Age of Adz feels more like a hodgepodge of all of his works being as weird as possible while also conforming to every single Sufjan style. I think because this album is all of the weird aspects of his previous and future albums glomed all together, this becomes the most quintessential of his albums.
Although at a first glance Age of Adz doesn’t look like a quiet album by any measure, there are points within that intentionally become quiet to make sure that they attract the most attention. The dichotomy between the loud and the soft that Sufjan creates throughout the album is rather admirable. From the beginning song “Futile Devices” starting the album on a very soft note and building intensity through “Too Much” and finally going into the ridiculously loud “Age of Adz”. You can see that Sufjan is playing with the overall intensity, usually playing with expectations that you may already have. Even within the louder songs, like “Age of Adz” or “Impossible Soul”, there are quiet parts that are intentionally focused on that often provide the thesis of the song as a whole. I think that it is these quiet moments that are able to conform to an overall style that Sufjan has had before. I think because he is able to make an album that not only is bombastic and weird but also conforms to his previous and future works by being soft-spoken at times helps the case of this being his most quintessential album.
Okay, I really wanted to include this point because I knew it was important, but I don’t have much to say about it. Listen to Enjoy Your Rabbit and tell me Sufjan Stevens is only an indie folk artist.