Photo: Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Ascension’ Is Mostly Captivating

Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’ a solid—but not great or essential—addition to his catalog.

The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty
25 September 2020

Sufjan Stevens has always been a man of many creative hats—electropop experimentalist, folky singer/songwriter confessionalist, and orchestral rock maestro, among others. So his music is reliably surprising, fascinating, and resonant. As hyperbolic as it may sound, he truly is a one-of-a-kind artist who challenges himself and his audience by going into new directions with nearly every new release.

While that’s not entirely the case with his latest studio LP, The Ascension, the record still manages to house several of his most beloved traits. Fundamentally, it combines the digitized tranquility and eccentricity of The Age of Adz, the avant-garde bizarreness of Enjoy Your Rabbit, and the deeply personal and unassuming odes of his last solo album, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. It’s certainly not his best work—it’s a bit too samey and minimalist overall—but it embodies enough of his staggering compositional and songwriting talent to satisfy.

Honestly, there’s much to reveal in terms of background information or necessary context. The disc follows two relatively recent collaborative efforts: 2020’s partnership with his stepfather (Lowell Brams), Aporia, and 2017’s Planetarium (which he made with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister). Outside of prior contributor Casey Foubert (electric guitar and bass), the entire LP was written, recorded, and performed by Stevens. In typical fashion, the CD and vinyl versions also include a colorful bonus in the form of a 16-page booklet of original drawings.

Although Stevens hasn’t shared the inspiration(s) for The Ascension, it’s clear that he’s once again tackling some harrowing and important subject matter both personal and social/political. As a result—and combined with the aforementioned musical slants—the sequence is marginally too familiar and unvaried, offering little that longtime fans haven’t heard before. Nevertheless, that path is still extremely hypnotic and effective, so it works more often than not and continues to exemplify Stevens’ brilliance.

At just over 80 minutes in duration, The Ascension can be a lot to take at once, especially since it lacks the diversity and scope of something like Illinois. Yet, there’s an abundance of standout pieces to pick from. For instance, opener “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” wonderfully combines intense and ever-changing programmed soundscapes with Steven’s trademark, wounded performance.

Next, the sparser and darker “Run Away with Me” is deeply powerful, placing symphonic synths alongside beautifully heartrending requests like, “And I say love / Come run away with me / Sweet falling remedy / Come run away with me.” “Video Game” evokes the upbeat robotic pop of the 1980s, while “Landslide” is a relatively accessible and direct angelic ballad. Near the end, “Sugar” houses an immensely strong—if also simple—hook and generally palpable sense of desperation and longing.

The lengthy “America” earns its place as both the record’s closing statement and its lead single. In the press, he’s described it as “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”, which definitely fits. Verses such as “I have worshipped, I have cried / I have put my hands in the wounds on your side / I have tasted of your blood / I have choked on the waters, I abated the flood” are powerfully poetic.

Meanwhile, the chorus – “Don’t do to me what you did to America” – can’t help but hit home. He sings it all with heavenly abandon, too, all the while backed by ethereal digital loops that transform into chaotic crescendos. In that way, it’s classic Stevens: ingeniously repetitious yet chameleonic and imaginative, with a sense of yearning and outrage that only he can provide.

There aren’t any “bad” tracks here, but some don’t measure up to the rest. A few, like “Die Happy”, “Ativan”, “Death Star”, “Goodbye to All That”, and “Gilgamesh”, are either too inconsequential or too dissonant and volatile. Sometimes, they’re both at once. As for “Ursa Major”, it’s the most playful and bright track here, which wouldn’t be a problem if not for the annoying way he chants, “I wanna love you” throughout it. Granted, it’s all in the name of expressionism and testing out new things within a comfortable core, but that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable.

Although The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it’s far from a mediocre effort. After all, even a very good Stevens album is quite admirable and worthwhile, rising above the output of nearly any other artist who’s amassed a comparable level of fame and productivity. Even if he’s repeating himself and staying within an already well-worn musical environment, he still does it exceptionally well. That, coupled with his always superb and characteristic songwriting, makes The Ascension a solid—but not great or essential—addition to his catalog.