After five long years of silence, with only the occasional tantalizing collaboration or side project, Sufjan Stevens bestows upon the musical world his first official full-length LP since 2005’s Illinois. Huzzah! Though Age of Adz is coming right off the heels of Steven’s behemoth of an EP, the hour-long All Delighted People, this is still cause for celebration.
Age of Adz
Adz is a bold move, to say the least. Fans salivating for more quaint, meticulously composed ballads (“Decatur,” “Casimir Pulaski Day”) or swelling, otherworldly anthems (“Chicago”) should readjust their expectations. No strategically placed banjos or tasteful accordions are found here.
Don’t be fooled by album opener “Futile Devices.” Sufjan deceives listeners with a signature two-minute folksy treat showcasing his angelic falsetto akin to Illinois’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” The poignantly overlapped finger-picked acoustic and electric guitars form the foundation of the song. Stevens’ subtle addition of piano, picked violin and reverb make an otherwise simple folk song into something of quiet majestic beauty.
“Too Much” is more indicative of the album’s sound. It begins in a jarring blur of strange sounds akin to an upset stomach (or the Flaming Lips circa Yoshimi). Once the odd gurgling subsides, it transforms into an electronic hip-hop beat that Stevens sings over in a jaunty up-tilt. Standard Sufjan horns permeate the middle of the song, but soon listeners are back into WTF territory. Out of nowhere, the song morphs into something that would suit a James Bond chase scene complete with flutes and strings. How did this melodic song become a high-intensity, instrumental hot mess of ominous urgency à la “Live and Let Die?” Or, more importantly, why?
The opening orchestral notes of the title track are in this same vein. “Age of Adz” sounds more like the score to a horror movie when the main character first discovers the psycho axe murderer than a Sufjan Stevens song. The chorus provides a welcome foray into melodic territory when Stevens strains “This is the Age of Adz / Eternal living / When it dies, when it dies / It rots.” Archetypal Stevens horns add jazzy flavor to cushion the depressing lyrics.
After listening to Age of Adz’s drum machines and spacey electronica amblings devoid of any semblance of verse-chorus-verse, one may wonder why someone like Stevens, who so obviously has a God-given gift for melody, would choose to divorce himself from a model that allows maximum appreciation of that gift.
The album is dripping with bold risks and brilliance, but has only brisk flashes of effortlessly enjoyable listening. It is not easy to love the songs like it was on Illinois. Look for easy tuneful pleasure elsewhere.
Age of Adz requires patience and an educated ear. Few things will draw you in; the lyrics are desolate and extremely personal, the songs stretch from seven to 25 minutes, often with lengthy instrumental interludes. Though most signs point to self-indulgence, somehow Stevens shirks that notion almost entirely. Perhaps because he slips in enough melodic genius to distract us from the abrasive electronic beats and peculiar intermittent sonics, we forgive him the same way we forgive a band for not playing our favorite song until the very last encore. Because in the end, like Age of Adz, it turned out to be worth the wait.