“Music Talks” is a series where Daily Music Writers give their takes on the biggest releases in new music. From picking best and worst tracks to asking what makes a record tick, the Music beat is here to give praise and give shit to music worth talking about.
On Sept. 25, indie darling Sufjan Stevens released his eighth studio album, The Ascension. It’s been half a decade since his previous, critically-acclaimed full-length release Carrie & Lowell. Those expecting a similar album had their preconceptions shattered by the end of the first song — Sufjan addressed his shift in style in an interview with The Atlantic, asserting that: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and how many songs have I written about my own personal grievances [with] judgment against myself, self-deprecation, and sorrow? I was like, No, I don’t want to write another song about my dead mother. I want to write a song that is casting judgment against the world.” It’s a record guaranteed to spark debate — here’s what we had to say about it:
(This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Jonah Mendelson, Senior Arts Editor: Welcome to Music Talks, everyone. This time around, we're going to be talking about Sufjan Stevens long-anticipated new album The Ascension, released last Thursday night. First things first — what does everyone think of it? What were your first impressions?
Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer: I would say it was wildly inconsistent, but in both good ways and bad ways, in a sense. I think a lot of people will find this album surprising, if they’re just going off of Carrie & Lowell. I wasn’t that surprised because I listened to his collaborative works beforehand. He did one this year, actually, with his stepfather (Aporia), and a lot of the sounds off of that can be heard in this, so I wasn’t too jarred by everything. But yeah, I would still say it’s very hit or miss, kind of track-by-track.
Vivian Istomin, Daily Arts Writer: I would disagree that it’s inconsistent. It was like really, really just consistent, especially with the instrumentation. I didn’t hear anything from one particular song that wasn’t in another one, I guess. He really used those kind-of-obnoxious electronics throughout each one. So I wasn’t the biggest fan of it. But I thought there were some nice moments, I guess.
Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer: Actually Drew, I took your advice and listened to your recommendations for some of his other music. I’m a new listener to Stevens, I did a crash course this weekend. So for me, I actually really liked Ascension because it went from his, you know, very weird Enjoy Your Rabbit album that was totally out of my musical league to Ascension, where I felt like I landed on some stable ground. But I agree with you in the sense that … I wouldn’t say hit or miss, but I definitely think that there are some songs that work together in tandem, I found a lot of couplets between songs. I thought the first two, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” and “Run Away With Me” worked really well together, rather than necessarily as part of the whole album. So I wouldn’t say “miss,” I would say more hits and just middle ground. I wouldn’t say anything truly fell flat.
Gadbois: I should probably rephrase what I meant. Instead of “hit or miss,” I meant it felt like there were two approaches that were on the album. And it felt like there’s kind of this kind of wrestle between the two approaches.
Gannon: Yeah, I see that.
Gadbois: Yeah, I felt like there’s never quite a single sort of idea compositionally that he wanted to go with, it felt like he switched a lot. And sometimes even between songs, or in the middle of songs, he’ll start in one way and then completely flip it another way. And sometimes that worked really well. And other times, I felt like it really left the listener reeling from it.
Kai Bartol, Daily Arts Writer: As someone who loves long-form concept albums, I honestly found this album pretty exhausting. By the time I got to “America,” I had to physically take a break from the album. Because it was just, you know, one song after the next of just concept. “America,” I love that song, but by the time I got to it, I just needed to take a break because this album is too long, and, honestly, kind of bloated in my opinion.
Sam Cantie, Music Beat Editor: Personally, I’m not a huge Stevens listener — only Carrie & Lowell, and otherwise I haven’t really listened, so I probably shouldn’t be a part of this Music Talks. But I found that I also was exhausted. I think what I like so much about Carrie & Lowell is how it’s so nuanced and paints very specific imagery. And this whole album (The Ascension) just felt very on the nose about the current state of America, especially with “Die Happy,” the song named after an anxiety drug (“Ativan”) and then finishing with “America.” I have known and heard that Stevens is very nuanced in his approach, none of (The Ascension) felt that way, it felt very just on the nose.
Mendelson: I think it is consistent to a fault in some ways. I think that the songs often become almost hypnotizing, which is not something I particularly enjoy, and that’s due to the same style of instrumentation, the same electronic drum sounds. It is pretty bloated, I think I agree. (Sufjan)’s always been pretty indulgent, his albums have usually been pretty progressive and high concept, but this is the first time I’ve ever really felt tired listening to one. And I do think it’s a little inconsistent in terms of quality, there’s definitely a dip in the middle where there really aren’t many interesting ideas. And the uninteresting ideas that are there are being repeated for a long time.
Gannon: A lot of the album just felt like I was untethered. Like I was floating in that sort of timeless void that you find at the airport or the DMV, or during quarantine. So I felt adrift somewhere for a lot of it.
Istomin: Maybe that’s what the ascension is gonna feel like.
Gannon: That wouldn’t be so bad!
Istomin: Honestly, if I was getting raised up to heaven, I wouldn’t mind Steven’s aging voice in my ears for the whole time.
Mendelson: Okay, what do people think are the best and the worst tracks on the album?
Gadbois: I know my worst song by far was “Video Game,” I thought that was the most kitschy and just fell so flat. I think that by far was the most out-of-the-blue song. It just felt so pop driven and basic in a sense. Sam was talking about his nuanced approach, I felt like there was none of that on this particular song. I would say my favorites are probably “Die Happier” and “Ativan.” Maybe “Sugar” even. With those I felt that he was able to let the instrumentation drift in a way that really had no inhibitions; there was no wrestling between a more lyrically-driven song versus a more atmospheric song. I felt like he was allowed to just focus on one and drive it through — and the switch in the second part of “Die Happy,” I felt like the song was actually built to that, rather than just dropped off and switched. So yeah, I really like that song. And it’s one of my favorites of his recently I would say.
Istomin: I actually didn’t like “Die Happy” and “Ativan.” I thought that he was way too repetitive and just kind of went through the motions of repeating the lyrics over and over again. I really love Sufjan Stevens’ personal lyrics, but there’s just none of that on here. I think that’s what he writes the best, but “Ativan,” the lyrics were just like “aaahhhh.” He did not have to say “I shit my pants” in that song! That really stood out to me. And I think he said “put the lotion in the basket,” referencing “Silence of the Lambs,” … I don’t know, it seemed like there was no reason to me.
Bartol: Yeah, I agree. My least favorite song was “Video Game,” I thought it was just too kitschy and not fun. I really loved the intro to “Sugar,” so I think that’s probably my favorite song.
Istomin: Did anyone feel like “Video Game” felt like Sufjan Stevens’ performing a “Like A Version” of an ’80s song? Or like it was just a cover of something?
(All emphatically agreeing)
Mendelson: My least favorite was “Video Game” too. Sufjan has made bad songs before, and I’ve known him to produce a lot of unpleasant things, but he’s never been generic. This is the first time I really felt like he made a song that was truly boring and uninspired.
Gannon: That song ended up falling flat for me because, like I said before, I thought “Run Away With Me” was a really nice answer to “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” the opening two songs of the album. The second track felt like an answer to the petition he makes, the question: “make me an offer.” And so then, I had expected the songs to play off each other more. But it just felt like they could have been standalone, “Video Game” didn’t really build off any of the themes that he had built. And it also reminded me a lot of an indie or alternative song of some guy sitting in his bedroom, riffing off of something random. It just felt out of place with the supposed religious substance that he gets into later. It feels like a filler.
Cantie: Yeah, also the phrase “I don’t want to play / I don’t want to play it” just comes off as bitchy and annoying to me. It reminds me of a child who is acting up and throwing a tantrum, it’s not a catchy phrase to be repeated. It’s not good. My favorite track was actually “Ativan.” The only reason — I agree, Viv, the lyrics were shit — but the only reason it’s my favorite is because he does this one thing where he goes up into a high note in a way that’s very “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack.
Istomin: Yeah, yeah.
Cantie: I think that juxtaposed with the electronic backing — I really liked when he goes up with his voice like that, but the fact that it’s just one moment that I’m clinging to … I wouldn’t want to listen to the whole song to get to that one moment, but it was my favorite off of the album.
Mendelson: Personally, I really liked the title track (“The Ascension”), I thought that really stood out in terms of its lyrics and sound.
Gadbois: Also “Landslide,” the chorus was really just badass.
Mendelson: Sufjan’s last solo project, Carrie & Lowell, was centered around his recently deceased mother. Did you notice any predominant lyrical themes or other connecting narrative arcs across The Ascension?
Bartol: I thought Carrie & Lowell was definitely a tighter production. Thematically, it was very specific and was very focused in that sense. I thought (The Ascension) lacked a bit of focus, it was pretty vague and it didn’t really have the tightness of Carrie & Lowell.
Gadbois: I would say it had themes, but I would say most of them were kind of paper-thin. The way it’s written in terms of how just long-winded most of these tracks are, and most of these ideas become, you just kind of forget about them as time goes on. So you’re not really left with any lasting idea about what the album’s about or what it’s trying to say. You’re just kind of left thinking: “Okay, that was that.”
Gannon: I agree that his thematic focus wasn’t held together throughout the entire album — and it’s a longer album, it’s 15 tracks. But I think the idea of self-reckoning, of that examination that he engages in, and the religious discussion that he has, I do think that’s pretty strong both because it’s so relevant right now and also because wading through that sort of internal dialogue with yourself is messy by necessity. So while maybe it wasn’t super clear and super easy for the listener, I do think that he hit an authentic point of: that’s what it’s like to do it, that’s what it’s gonna sound like. And if you were to transcribe a lot of your own inner dialogue, it would be more of a chaotic jumble of emotions rather than a linear, straightforward process. So I do want to give him some credit in that I think he was authentic to whatever dialogue he was trying to engage in with himself.
Cantie: Well put.
Mendelson: On a related note, it’s been five years since Carrie & Lowell. Do you think Sufjan lived up to the high expectations following that release?
Mendelson: I don’t think so either.
Istomin: I think that all of the sounds on the album are just like everything that we've heard before. I guess it just feels like a mixture of — it really sounds like Planetarium, and then it has Age of Adz influences as well — I think I wrote that it sounds like everything he’s made over the last ten years, basically. But I guess he does that every decade, he has his sound. Because he really departed from his 2000’s stuff with Age of Adz.
Mendelson: It reminds me most of two singles that I think everyone kind of forgot about, “Love Yourself” and “With My Whole Heart.” I think those are the precursors to this album.
Istomin: Yeah, those songs were really, really good, I loved them.
Mendelson: The Ascension is drawing comparisons to Age of Adz, released a decade ago, largely due to the glitchy production and the lengthy structures. Do you agree with this comparison? Do you think that’s a good point of reference?
Gadbois: Yes and no. I think it’s one of many points of reference. Like Vivian was saying, the last ten years as a whole have been condensed into this, in some parts at least.
Mendelson: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a lot of similar elements. But I feel as though Age of Adz was more orchestral and dynamic.
Bartol: Yeah, (The Ascension) is definitely a lot more stripped down than most of his albums. He doesn’t use the guitar or the banjo or anything, it’s basically just a synthesizer, a drum machine and his voice. So I think in that sense, it feels like the sound is a lot less full than on many of his other albums.
Istomin: Did anybody listen to Sisyphus, that rap project he was a part of?
Gadbois: I heard about it, never listened to it though.
Istomin: The sound is kind of similar, very intense and pounding drums. It’s got some good songs, I recommend it.
Gadbois: I think, especially with the drums, it can go as far back as Enjoy Your Rabbit. That album, in particular, has affected my view of Sufjan. To me, it really feels like — at least, he feels like — he’s a composer first and a lyricist second. He puts a lot of his attention towards what sounds he's crafting. I think that's why we hear so many orchestral sweeps in his earlier stuff. I do think it is kind of funny that his most acclaimed albums are more lyrical. But with The Ascension, I feel like there was a butting of heads between Sufjan as the composer and Sufjan as the lyricist.
Mendelson: Yeah, it’s interesting because the musical effect of the long structures, repetitive electronic drums, and simple synths is very different from the lyrical ideas at hand, which is different from how Sufjan normally is. With Carrie & Lowell, the sound is stripped-down and acoustic which really matches with the lyrics. Age of Adz as well, Illinois is sort of this joyous celebration …
Mendelson: Yeah, Michigan too — the lyrics and sound all seem to make sense given the other but on The Ascension I didn’t feel that way.
Gannon: I think the big misstep in terms of his lyrical writing on this album is that when you have something that’s so experimental with its sound and puts so much focus on it, lyrics can anchor the listener, especially when you have really long tracks and a long album. So I think it wasn’t just a matter of matching up the intent, like you’re talking about Jonah, but also he just doesn’t really give us much ground to step back on or anything to really land on when we’re untethered in the space of his album. So yeah, I think he could have even used his lyrics more as a tool than he did.
Cantie: Yeah, I felt that most in the “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Die Happy” couplet.
Gadbois: I feel like with (Sufjan), it’s kind of a really hard “either/or,” where either the lyrics become the very central spine of everything, and then what sounds he builds around that act as like the flesh in a sense, or it’s the very opposite where he’ll just construct records — he has several records where there’s no vocal track at all, it’s just him composing. Enjoy Your Rabbit is one,
Mendelson: The BQE.
Gadbois: Yeah, yeah, that’s another one. I’m pretty sure he did a cover of this symphony a few years ago, I’m forgetting what it was, but he does a bunch of stuff like that, where I think he also flourishes. But when he tries to mix the two too much together — (The Ascension) is a perfect example. I think — things get slightly weird and off-centered.
Mendelson: Where does Sufjan go from here?
Istomin: Wherever he wants, I guess. He always will.
Gadbois: Yeah, that’s typically what he does. He’ll probably end up doing more symphony covers, because he does those quite a bit. And, you know, those are plenty interesting on their own. I think it’s gonna be a while before he makes another album that we’re gonna, you know, pay attention to and kind of frame as a Sufjan Stevens album, because a lot of his other works feel more like side project stuff.
Mendelson: Like Aporia.
Gadbois: Yeah, Aporia is a great example. It’s technically a Sufjan Stevens record, but, you know, it’s also technically not, so people are not gonna necessarily look at it the same way. I think it’ll be a long time before we see another Sufjan project.
Istomin: Maybe where he’s going next is to release another ten-hour-long Christmas album.
Mendelson: I hope so! That’s my dream. And yeah, I agree with Drew. I think I see more experimental stuff, like the projects that people don’t really pay attention to that much. Symphony works, maybe even explorations in ambient music.
Bartol: He should finish his America project. He’s got 48 states to go.
Gadbois: I think he said that was a joke …
Mendelson: Maybe one day.
Mendelson: Any final thoughts?
Bartol: I know we kind of ripped on it a little bit, but I ended up actually kind of enjoying The Ascension a lot. It definitely needs some of the fat to be cut out of it. But there are quite a few tracks on that album that I’ll definitely be coming back to.
Mendelson: I agree. I think I took a more negative view of it just in contrast to his earlier work. But there’s a lot that I liked about it. And I wonder if it’ll be a grower.
Gadbois: I think it’s not the sort of record that I’ll remember being like, “Oh yeah, it’s bad,” but one that I just don’t think about much. I think it’s gonna kind of fall more in that sort of vein.
Gannon: Yeah, whenever I write reviews, I always end on: “Should someone listen to this? Why?” I honestly can’t really decide even for myself whether it’s a listen-to album or not. I definitely think there are a few good songs here that deserve a bit more spotlight. So I think The Ascension deserves a revisit, maybe for individual tracks rather than the whole experience because I’m not sure he produces a cohesive one.
Mendelson: Okay, unless anyone has anything else to add, I think we’ll wrap up this edition of Music Talks. Thank you everyone for contributing.
Cantie: Should we say thank you to our audience?
Mendelson: Everyone take a bow.
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