On the title track of The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens sings “I have known you for just a little while / I feel I must be wearing my welcome / I must be moving on.” The emotionally direct, apologetic quality of the song’s conclusion answers years of speculation concerning the direction the artist would take with the official follow-up to 2005’s critically adored Illinois. In the wake of numerous unofficial releases, side projects, and parsed interviews and comments, these lyrics best elucidate the album’s perspective on endings and beginnings.
Changing course musically needn’t involve lyrical themes of death and rebirth, but Stevens has always made a virtue of earnestness. For the most part, the words on The Age of Adz are effective. Freed from the geographical and biographical specificity of Michigan and Illinois, Stevens’ present confessions and visions are fragmented, less certain, and considerably more tortured.
Release notes for the album wordily attempt to explain the album’s meaning, before admitting that “these themes are best illustrated in the album’s namesake,” which is the art of a fantastic real-life figure named Royal Robertson, who is said to have suffered from schizophrenia and channeled his own troubled visions into his work. Robertson would be a likely source of inspiration for an album by Daniel Johnston or David Tibet. However, a larger leap is required to associate him with the prettily orchestrated, symphonic folk pop for which Stevens is famous.
Anyone approaching The Age of Adz expecting a familiar Sufjan Stevens style should consider all of the above and reset their expectations before listening. Though “Futile Devices” begins the album with a string-laden romantic folk tune and a vocal turn that could be mistaken for Paul Simon, nearly every other song incorporates electronic rhythms and noises. The album notes also suggest that the live instrumentation on the album establishes “vivacious juxtapositions against the montage of synthesized sounds.” In theory, to combine the sound of Enjoy Your Rabbit or The BQE‘s “Movement IV-Traffic Shock” with that of Stevens’ lauded middle-career output is an interesting experiment. The execution, however, leads to mixed results.
“Too Much” is simultaneously too simple (in its repetitive lyric and melody) and too crowded (in its fussy rhythmic decoration). The instrumental and electronic components fight for space rather than form a complex whole. Perhaps the name of the song indicates that cacophony is the very point, but the benefits of such an intellectual exercise are limited. “Age of Adz” is similarly bloated, but a bit more organized. However, Stevens’ tendency to interrupt even the most tranquil moments with random bursts of drum machine undermines the pursuit of “vivacious juxtapositions”. The final minute of the song is affecting, but the journey there is tedious at times.
One outstanding element of “Age of Adz” is a backing choir, whose voices also invigorate “I Walked”, a mid-tempo dance number about the incredibly violent dissolution of a relationship. The subject matter is at odds with the synthesized pop sound: a psychotic break set to mall music. The choir finally takes center stage on “Now That I’m Older”, which develops over a gorgeous arrangement of voices and is blissfully absent of distracting electronic effects. Like “Belsayer Time” by Galbraith/Neilson/Youngs, the song resonates with clarity amidst more challenging material.
“Get Real Get Right” is a highlight because both the backing voices and the ear-catching electronic quirks correspond perfectly with the tensions in the song. Stevens sings of wanting/needing to “get right with the Lord” in a time of torment. In contrast to “Too Much” and “Age of Adz”, there is also a significant escalation of narrative and musical intensity within the song. This precise songcraft links “Get Real Get Right” to Stevens’ former musical styles, even though the sonic palette is different. “Vesuvius” has a similar trajectory, starting gently, but developing its rhythm and vocal mantra in tandem with an emotional journey about self-sacrifice.
Much of the conversation about The Age of Adz concerns “Impossible Soul”, which runs more than 25 minutes and concludes the album. The song begins promisingly, with a foundation much like that of “Skttrbrain”, Four Tet’s remix of Radiohead’s “Scatterbrain”. Stevens’ voice is smooth and soulful. There is an abrasive guitar solo that might as well have been sampled from the Fiery Furnaces’ “Mason City”. When all of those elements die down, a solo female vocalist sings, “Don’t be distracted,” over and over.
From there, the song mistakes confusion for complexity, making the egregious choice to add a vocoder to Stevens’ pleasant lead vocal. There is little that could counteract such a wrong move, but the singer and his background vocalists attempt to do so with the next section of the song, which finds them in Go! Team mode, cheering and encouraging each other. If the “uncanny valley” has an aural equivalent, then that effect might describe this part of “Impossible Soul”. The singers repeat, “Boy, we can do much more together / It’s not so impossible.” Yet as they continue to persist in their almost-convincing enthusiasm, the song becomes increasingly wearisome to the ears — a contradictory response. Perhaps this paradox is the point of the song, but as with “Too Much”, the concept backfires if the listener decides to tune out.
To want to check out of “Impossible Soul” early is understandable but not advisable, because the final three minutes of the song return to the tenor of “Futile Devices” as a way of framing the album. Stevens must have some motivation for connecting the disparate parts of “Impossible Soul”, but, in doing so, he compromises the whole by attaching the sections that work (namely the beginning and ending) to the poisonous middle. Like its concluding song, The Age of Adz is occasionally transfixing, but overall inconsistent.