Sufjan Stevens is a hard artist to pin down. His popularity began to surge in the early 2000s with folky pop tunes about his home state of Michigan and the neighbouring state of Illinois. Since then, however, he hasn’t really managed to maintain a consistent tone, and that’s not meant as an insult. It very much feels like an intentional choice, to not just be that guy with the banjo who sings about obscure Americana. He’s largely succeeded on that front, with seemingly nothing to inhibit his boundless ambition, along with an eclectic range of albums over the past decade. From the electronic musings of 2010’s The Age of Adz to the lo-fi, heart-on-sleeve honesty of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, not to mention his collaborative efforts on works like Planetarium, The Decalogue, and Aporia, it really feels like there’s nothing he won’t try at least once.
Sufjan’s new album, The Ascension, is not invoking any of those previous works stylistically, which is to be expected. The closest it probably comes to musically is the electronic sound of The Age of Adz, but while the sounds of that album were in your face and abrasive, the sounds on The Ascension are much warmer while remaining just as dense and layered and occasionally just as aggressive. Tracks like “Video Game” and “Tell Me You Love Me” offer the aforementioned warmer tones that call back to ‘80s synth-pop acts like The Human League and Depeche Mode (the phrase “personal Jesus” even gets thrown around on “Video Game”). Other tracks, meanwhile, especially those later on in the album like “Landslide” and “Death Star,” sound closer to something like a middle ground between Joy Division and New Order, or even a softer version of Nine Inch Nails. Part of the appeal of this album is Sufjan’s unabashed boldness when it comes to developing new sounds. While Adz began with an acoustic guitar that transitioned into more ambient sounds on its short opener, “Futile Devices,” Ascension feels no such need to ease the listener into anything. The opening track, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” (which is disappointingly not a song recounting the plot of The Godfather), lets you know what you’re getting into right away with Sufjan’s distinctive falsetto — which he employs quite frequently on this album — kicking off the affair before synths on top of synths begin to layer themselves onto the song.
A lot of songs on The Ascension begin this way: a sparse, ambient instrumentation accompanied by Sufjan’s thin, whispery vocals. It’s akin to the way he ended many of his songs on his previous major album, Carrie & Lowell. While the ambience on that album often felt contemplative as a means for Sufjan to reconcile the death of his mother — the raison d’être for that album — The Ascension’s ambience feels much more foreboding. I remember a lot of people describing Gorillaz’s 2017 album Humanz as something of a post-apocalyptic dance party. If that album was a party, then Ascension is the morning after as everyone attempts to recollect the wild night and the fuzzy memories of the world ending.
Like Humanz, the wild, apocalyptic nature of the album means it’s a little all over the place. The Ascension doesn’t have the thematic cohesion of Sufjan’s previous records, although it touches on themes familiar to listeners of his work, like religion, love, and self-doubt. It could be said that this album is lyrically comparable to Sufjan’s 2004 effort, Seven Swans, though not nearly as overt in its theme. Despite a lack of cohesion in that regard, his lyrics are still evocative and wrought with earnest emotion. Sufjan has a tendency to bring out very strong feelings from otherwise innocuous lines. Any other artist singing the line “Come on, baby, gimme some sugar” would produce nothing but eye rolls (followed by a subpar Bruce Campbell impression), but the somber instrumentation combined with Sufjan’s vocals makes for a haunting combination that permeates the album.
The themes on The Ascension are not necessarily uncharted waters for Sufjan, but making an album of really solid tunes (and ones in a genre mostly unexplored by him up to this point), thematically connected or not, is still something worth commemorating. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how different and occasionally similar this album is compared to Sufjan’s previous works, but I should make it clear that no matter how different or similar, the songs here are very consistently in their quality. Although the theme of the album is not as cohesive as previous efforts, his songs are as eclectic as they’ve always been. I’m often wary of albums that exceed the one-hour mark, as they rarely warrant their length (though Sufjan is no stranger to lengthy albums). The Ascension’s combination of ambient beauty and synthesized hooks leave each song feeling properly placed on the tracklist. Even longer songs like the seven minute “Sugar,” which has three minutes of buildup before the lyrics kick in, still feels like it’s not wasting any time. That buildup could have easily just felt like you were left waiting for the good part, but it just happens to be a good part in anticipation for the next good part.
Then there’s the final track, the twelve minute epic “America,” which was also the first single released for the album. At the time, the song didn’t do much for me, but in the context of the album, it feels like the perfect send off to this post-apocalyptic morning after. It’s preceded by the title track, a contemplation on life, death, and religion. Although these are far from unfamiliar topics for Sufjan’s music, doubt has never permeated his spirituality as much as it does here. Lines like “To think I was acting like a believer / When I was just angry and depressed” and “I did it all with adoration / While you killed it off with your holy mess” really solidify this confusion and anger at the state of the world in the context of Sufjan’s faith. Ending with a slew of “what nows” only twists the knife further into this doubt-inflicted wound. The power of synth-pop combined with frequently soft vocals means a lot of the lyrics here get buried in the music, but Sufjan seems to know when to bring them to the forefront. When they do come out, they hit and they hit hard.
All of this, of course, transitions into the aforementioned final track, “America.” The journey of listening to this album through all of its hour and twenty minutes is to experience the same doubts Sufjan faces regarding the realities of his life, both positive and negative. From his status as an indie darling in “Video Game” to questions of love on “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Sugar,” this is Sufjan at simultaneously his most unsure and his most confident self. The combination of these grand, powerful synthesizers on top of Sufjan’s doubtful, softly spoken vocals is harrowing to hear. He pleads in the most oft-repeated line of the final track, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” It’s a plea seeping in desperation, filled with as much gusto as it is brimming with anxiety for the future.
That’s The Ascension in one sentence, really. It’s an album with the kind of confidence that only a twenty year long career in music could produce, but it’s not a show of arrogance. If anything, it’s a humble ascension, flying over self-doubt and struggling personal beliefs by way of a neon light through stained glass, which is to say that it’s as much a spiritual journey as it is a synth-pop throwback. Throwback isn’t really the right word, though, because despite the comparisons I’ve made to synth-pop acts of the ‘80s, this album isn’t exactly comparable to other synth-pop throwbacks like Emotion or Random Access Memories. On The Ascension, Sufjan takes synth-pop and molds it into his own thing to use for his own means. If Carrie & Lowell represented Sufjan feeling at his absolute rock bottom, then The Ascension has him looking up and seeing an insurmountable peak that despite its size, he chooses to climb anyway.