Release Date: Sep 25, 2020
Record label: Asthmatic Kitty
Twenty years into Sufjan Stevens's catalogue, there's still no way to predict what he'll bring to the table next. His records, while always highly conceptual, remain scattershot in their topics, genres and frequency. The latest in a string of experiments, The Ascension, is no different.
Five years after the deeply introspective 'Carrie & Lowell' further cemented Sufjan Stevens' already eulogised status, 'The Ascension' continues the trajectory of his recent collaborative work and delves firmly into vast, experimental soundscapes. Surpassing the hour mark with some space yet to go, the record provides an expansive canvas for Sufjan to critique the flaws of humanity, at the same time finding room for the inward focus that made his previous offering so compelling. Far from running away with vague existential questioning, he doubles down on his characteristic delivery, not least in the way he pairs the grandiose with the personal.
There's always a notable air of excitement when a new, song-based album by Sufjan Stevens is announced, but it's not something he's massively focused on of late. Earlier this year saw him release the instrumental suite Aporia, written with his stepfather Lowell Brams, and last year he wrote scores for film and ballet. While side projects like these and 2009's The BQE have much to offer, his strength undoubtedly remains in writing emotion-heavy songs that connect powerfully with the listener.
Give me a beat! Yes, you, Sufjan Stevens. Fans hoping to find the lolling acoustics of his last album 2016’s Carrie & Lowell might want to take a minute as he’s written an electronic album with programmed drum beats in a nod to Rhythm Nation—Janet Jackson’s socially conscious, 1989 pop juggernaut. This idea is fully fleshed out in the layered, percussive march of “Death Star,” situated just over midway in this electro-epic, which clocks in at 121 minutes in length.
"Don't do to me what you did to America, don't do to me what you did to yourself." Sufjan Stevens repeats that line like it's more a mantra than a chorus on "America," the 12-and-a-half-minute final track on his epic-scale 2020 album The Ascension. Just who is he pleading with and what have they done? He doesn't offer a clear answer, but the accumulated effect of these 15 songs is that Stevens is deeply troubled about the state of the world in the year 2020. The Ascension bears some small resemblance to his 2010 album The Age of Adz, both in its cool, sleek, and busy electronic surfaces and the profound angst that lurks amidst his dominant themes.
Sufjan Stevens has a knack for, in the briefest of musical moments, opening up the skies and letting a glorious light shine through. Such moments of instantaneous transcendence are peppered throughout his varied discography––see the voice-cracking, heart-wrenching delivery of "oh my god" in 2005's John Wayne Gacy, Jr. or the entrance of newly propulsive live drums in the outro of 2010's I Want to Be Well, underscoring Stevens' proclamation that he's "not fucking around." The immediate comparison to draw from Stevens' latest, The Ascension, is to the album I Want to Be Well calls home, The Age of Adz.
Goodbye to all that, goes the Joan Didion essay about endings. Sufjan Stevens nods to it here, with a song named in its honour, chronicling his own escape from New York. She wrote it in a year of spiritual crisis, a "total withdrawal from all the dysfunctions and delusions of our present human condition". It fits here too with this record of existential exhaustion, for the gods are throwing some truly apocalyptic material at us at the minute.
Both lyrically and musically, The Ascension appears to be driven by feeling rather than intense intellectualism. Here Stevens' lyrics are suggestive, initiating a slow-burn response from the listener rather than the immediate dagger-to-the-heart specificity of Carrie & Lowell. Like last year's double A-side "Love Yourself/With My Whole Heart", The Ascension deals in well-worn pop terminology, in a language that belongs to everyone - something like hymnal syntax alluding to love ("Sweet fallen remedy/Come run away with me") and God ("I am on the verge of sorrow/Tell me Lord which road to follow").
The title track on The Ascension is one of the best songs Sufjan Stevens has ever written. Accompanying himself on keyboard with a sad, pulsing melody, Stevens uses precise and empathetic language to address faith and hopelessness, regret and revelations. He shouts out a character from King Lear. He rhymes "confess" with "confess." He declares life to be meaningless--and he sounds like he means it.
Smart R&B makeover for indie hero We used to know Sufjan Stevens as the doe-eyed fella in the baseball hat and wings combo, writing songs about US states and serial killers. Then he made some weirdo electronica albums, refusing to fall into the same-old-same-old schmindie routine, before pretty much doing what he wanted when he wanted - usually a collaboration, sometimes a soundtrack - before the surprising indie-folk volte face of 2015's Carrie & Lowell. Five years on and, yes, another hard left.
The Lowdown: Sufjan Stevens hasn't exactly stayed quiet since his last proper album, 2015's folk-infused, melancholy Carrie & Lowell. In the time since then, he's released a collaborative concept album about the solar system alongside James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National's Bryce Dessner. He contributed to Luca Guadagnino's popular 2017 romantic coming-of-age film, Call Me by Your Name, even receiving some Oscar nominations in the process.
A new Sufjan Stevens album comes but once every five years, landing down your chimney like a magic sack from a quinquennial Santa. Clocking in at a massive eighty minutes, The Ascension feels like a software dump on a first listen, and patience is required. Fifteen tracks long, often with a similar pace and tone, it's all a bit overwhelming to begin with.
The Ascension by Sufjan Stevens On the basis of The Ascension, it's safe to assume that Sufjan Stevens is not having a fun time. The suggestion of an existential crisis is writ large in 12-minute single "America," yet such patient expansiveness is seldom found among the rest of The Ascension's lengthy track list. There's a desperation to many of these songs that feels like the panicked rush of anxiety.