Indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens is an extraordinarily prolific artist. Since his outstanding 2015 album, Carrie and Lowell he has released three collaborative instrumental albums, received an Oscar nomination for “Mystery of Love” his song for the movie “ Call Me By Your Name” and released a number of singles. On September 25th, Stevens releases his eighth studio album, The Ascension. The release offers 15 tracks and a 16 pg booklet of drawings and the cover art by Stevens, which leads admirers to question if he ever sleeps.
On The Ascension Stevens takes us on another thought-provoking journey. In contrast to Carrie and Lowell where he attempted to come to grips with his personal grief and childhood after losing his long time estranged mother, on The Ascension Stevens is looking to gain an understanding of the randomness of fate and finding an answer to his crisis of faith. However, this dilemma is not only a crisis of religious faith but additionally with his faith in society and mankind. The release is personal turned universal. Fearlessly Stevens once again takes on big topics. He shines as he processes his experiences and offers up his unique sonics to reveal his innermost fears and ideas. His goal throughout the release is to provide the listener with an opportunity to think about and the question of who they believe in and do they deserve that trust. So a light-hearted listen it is not.
The album begins with “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” a midtempo offering loaded with Stevens’ layered ethereal vocals, and computer-generated glitchy sinuousness. This song seems like the culmination of Steven’s work on Planetarium and Aporia. The ever-expanding atmospheric sonic environment he creates provides the platform to question how we are blinded by greed and unquestioned acceptance. He notes society is often too willing to give up what is important to attain nothing much. The selection sets up the following tracks skillfully.
“Run Away With Me” is not as dark with sunlit almost hallucinogenic sonics. The track begins as a love song about two lovers escaping this world. Midway through the narrative switches over utilizing religious imagery, Stevens is frequently fond of using. Here he questions whether blind faith will completely sustain and remedy the world’s woes. The track lingers with the listener long after it is finished. Stevens harkens back to the ’80s with “Video Game” a song I could envision on a John Hughes movie soundtrack. The lyrics critique how we are being programmed to satisfy society’s expectations. Popular fads and preconceptions are keeping us from being authentic. We are being conditioned to care about all the wrong things as a society and even religion has too frequently sold out to the tawdry.
The stunning “Lamentations” combines an industrial rock sound with ethereal effects. Stevens in this counterintuitive glitchy track seems to warn that we must change our path or it will end in destruction. As the prophet, Jeremiah’s Lamentations of old, the constant chorus of “I Am the future” presents the doom looming over our society’s head. Stevens switches back to romantic topics with “Tell Me You Love Me” in his trademark yearning way. He questions whether there can ever be a love with total acceptance regardless of the disappointments, “can you carry this love across a desert?” It is a moving and gorgeous track that builds to a climax of emotion.
The gripping “Ativan”, named for the anti-anxiety drug, displays the feelings of an anxiety attack with a frenetic sonic collage. The narrator swings between wanting to be tranquillized and fearing the loss of feeling anything. Expressed are mankind’s fears of uncertainty, meaninglessness and pain. In the end, Stevens reveals that we all have to find our own way of coping with what the world hands us, “ …minding my business doing the best I can” and it is okay to use whatever tools are in the medicine cabinet.
Where Stevens looked for answers to his personal pain on Carrie and Lowell on The Ascension he looks to salve his crisis of faith. This quest is threaded throughout the release but nowhere more so than on “Ursa Major”. As always Stevens songs can be taken from a number of perspectives, but it is pretty apparent that this track is a pray for help and guidance. As he revels in the vastness of nature and the universe he comes back down to Earth asking God for mercy, “Lord I am praying for patience now call off your invasion.” What exactly is the invasion is up for question, and left to the listener’s imagination which is what makes the track so universal and inspired.
I expected something really special when I saw the song title “Gilgamesh” on the playlist and it does not disappoint. Stevens alludes to the ancient Sumerian tale of “Gilgamesh” submerging the listener in antiquity. We find ourselves in the Eden of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon pondering the archetypical ideas of bravery, noble behaviour and eternity. The choir-like vocals lull one into a blissful serenity and then the alarm sounds. The listener is brought back to reality as Stevens examines if any of those ideas still remain. It is a do not miss track.
“Death Star” and “Goodbye to All That” is a pairing of excellent industrial rock and serious dance beats. The tracks are akin to a marriage of Janet Jackson’s Control era with Trent Reznor’s The Downward Spiral all run through Sufjan’s musical mind. The title of “Death Star” harkens to vivid archetype imagery, popular culture and cosmos to once again offer up an engaging duo of tracks.
The lengthy track “Sugar” doesn’t seem over-indulgent once experienced. Instead, Sufjan uses each second of the track to weave a hypnotic sound that allows the listener to float along as he begs his lover for a kiss. The title track “Ascension” reverts back to Stevens using religious imagery and a loose version of the story of St. Paul’s conversion, which in Christian history occurred shortly after Christ’s ascension. After Paul’s persecuting Christians he is converted to Christianity and is exhorted to go convert the unfaithful and banish wrong. Stevens contrasts this to his desire to change the world around him and finding out he has to work on himself and find answers before taking on the world.
The final track “America” is Stevens’ response to our modern overheated and divisive political world. The track is a length 12 ½ minute, it is a protest song against the sickness that has flourished in American Culture. The majority of the track is instrumental with both beauty and cacophony that reflects the beauty and chaos of America. Stevens leaves this lasting question “What happens when the values you were raised with are proven to be opposite of what you were told they were?” This track is the culmination of everything Stevens has worked to discuss throughout the album and he leaves it to the listener to decide in this last haunting track that will resonate long after it is over.
The Ascension is a successful sonic marriage of the ethereal Coolwave, Funk beats and industrial glitchiness. It reveals an aesthetic panache that Stevens is so successful in continually offering. The Ascension is as deep as Carrie and Lowell but instead of exercising Steven’s personal demons it instead looks to identify and ward off the demons of human nature. It is as heartbreaking as Carrie and Lowell but on a universal scale. Where many artists can alienate the listener with what can come off as preachy tropes, Stevens is given allowance because his earnestness is unquestionable. The final verdict is that this album delivers another magnificent dose of Sufjan Stevens’ singular vision and musicality.