On Sufjan Stevens follow-up to 2015s ornate and personal Carrie & Lowell, the singer-songwriter returns to his extended electronic compositions. At one hour and twenty minutes The Ascension can feel dense and at times hard to get all the way thru in one sitting, but with patience comes the rewards. Much like Stevens 2010 opus The Age of Adz, The Ascension feels like a maze of sonic wonder and baffling structure. But with each listen it opens its secrets up to you, revealing a songwriter pleading to the world to take stock and concentrate on what’s important. This is an album for a country at odds with itself, and who better to write that album than Sufjan Stevens?
Sufjan Stevens is known for his indie folk and bedroom symphonies. Albums like Seven Swans, Michigan, and Illinois. Albums that felt like fully contained stories with plenty of layered vocals, intimate brass sections, and delicate banjo. When Stevens delivered onto the world The Age of Adz it was a shock. The sort of DIY electro sound and its cold exterior wasn’t what the die hards and passing fans alike were expecting. Sufjan was evolving and expanding as an artist and a person. After several collaborations over the years, as well as soundtrack work and even a synthesizer album with his stepfather, Sufjan has made an album that combines both the electronic tendencies and his intimate singer/songwriter leanings nearly perfectly.
The Ascension is adorned with a handful of straight up dance pop tracks. Stevens loves the experimental for sure, but he also is an amazing pop songwriter and “Video Game” is proof of that. Simple electro beat, sparse synth melody, and Sufjan’s almost monotone vocal locks into an 80s dance pop vibe. “Death Star” is all glitchy electronics and robotic vocals that is somewhere between Beck and Prince. “Sugar” is an extended but subtle pop track with dreamy soundscapes and an experimental lean that reveals a delicate heart at the center.
The epic track here is the final one, a tome on where we are currently as a country called “America”. At over twelve minutes it’s Sufjan’s sermon on the mount at the country that made him. It’s not a diatribe more than its a whispered refrain to a country in pain. It seems to pull together everything Stevens has done sonically and artistically to this point. It’s subtle, melancholy, and beautifully arranged.
From opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” to striking “Tell Me You Love Me” to the 80s electro funky “Goodbye To All That” Sufjan Stevens continues to push himself as an artist, a songwriter, and a human being. The Ascension isn’t a breezy listen, but it’s well worth the journey if you give in to it’s hidden joys.
7.7 out of 10