Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Posted on 28 September 2010 by Joe

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album The Age of Adz is a radical departure from his usual softly spoken, banjo plucked albums as he takes in a range of electronics and experimental sounds.

To the pluses first and there are many. This is a major change from the likes of Illinoise and Greetings From Michigan. Both were ambitious in their structure and use of instruments, but still keenly focused on melody and with a homespun, earthy feel. Here the banjo is replaced by beeps, the guitar by clicks and whirs and the whisper by a vocoder (but that is thankfully only at the end). Change is good, artists should evolve and Stevens should be applauded for that.

Age of Adz

So many great Bob Dylan albums would never have been made if he had listened to that lad shouting “Judas” and said, “hey, man you’re right, I’m sticking to harmonicas and blowing in the wind.” Flaming Lips did the same last year with Embryonic. After three or four albums of catchy pop their experimental side, their love of prog rock was getting lost. Then came along Embryonic, a rollercoaster of rock oddity and they were a better band for it.

Another plus is that there are actually some really good songs on here. Standouts include opener ‘Futile Devices’. It’s the nearest to classic Stevens track, he whispers, the guitar plucks, but it is as if he is saying ‘this is what I used to do…now listen to this’ as the rest of the album barges its way in like Judas with a synth.

Other standouts include ‘Vesuvius’. It’s among the slower ones, piano is there but the vocals are swathed in echo and backed by drum machine. The choral element is reminiscent of the best on Michigan. It’s already one of my favourite Stevens tracks and despite the modern sound is full of old-fashioned soul.

But to to the downpoints. Too many of the other tracks lack the soul shown on ‘Vesuvius’. The experimental production, hip hop rhythms and bleeps has come at a cost to the melody in places.

Sufjan Stevens

There’s a minus in this change of direction as well. At times, like on ‘All For Myself’, the production sounds a little too much like Animal Collective, but not as good. ‘I want to be well’ is great, but not if you’ve heard Owen Pallett’s Heartland. It sounds like a straight rip off of Pallett’s use of electronica, classical music and looping.

Stevens has morphed into something that may be new for him (although my colleague reminds me that Stevens has dabbled with electronica before  on 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit) but not in music over the last few years. Animal Collective and Pallett have already been doing this for a while and now it is Stevens turn to be the follower rather than the leader. This leaves him vulnerable to criticism for his music for perhaps the first time.

Final negative mention goes to last track ‘Impossible Soul’. Starts off great, even though I had to double take at the 25 minute length. But by the 11th minute as the vocoder/auto tune device came in, Stevens lost me. I had to turn it off. I’ll revisit it later, when I can get the image of Cher out of my head.

Overall Age of Adz is a mixed bag with some stunning tracks, some weaker ones and a change of direction that is welcome but not quite there yet. Age of Adz feels like the middle ground between two parts of his career, testing out new ways of making music and new influences. Knowing his previous work and sense of adventure in making music I can (almost) confidently predict that if he can stick to this evolving route the next album will be his masterpiece. For now though we will have to wait.

Review update: Despite still having reservations about much of the album, I’ve really warmed to some other tracks, especially  ‘I Walked’. Listened to it this morning (7 Oct) walking the dog at dawn across the Somerset levels and watching some swans on the river….great music meets reality moment.

‘Vesuvius’ is still my favourite and still can’t get into ‘Impossible soul’ and the title track. A bleep too far for me. I must add though that  I’m mighty impressed by the backlash this review has received from the Sufjanette army, proving that something we can all agree on is that he makes music that provokes a response and is anything but bland….I’m sticking to my guns for most of my initial thoughts but have taken  on board our readers comments and decided to up its score from a 6 to  7. Now, how often does that happen in a review?

7/10

by Joe Lepper

Share

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Trent Says:

    Maybe listen to the entirety of the last track before reviewing it…

  2. admin Says:

    Have now listened to the entire 25mins and still can’t get the image of Cher and her autotune out of my skull. What did you think of the album Trent?

  3. CD Says:

    Okay, your brain can’t cope with this. Fair enough. It’s definately the album of the year for me, and it’s been a musically strong year. I will give this half assed attempt at a review a 2/10, but thanks for trying. At least you did it quickly, even though it means you didn’t actually listen through it even once…

  4. admin Says:

    I’ve listened to it many times and my opinion hasn’t changed one bit. My personal hatred for autotune/vocoder aside I still think that others such as Animal Collective and Owen Pallett have been doing this stuff for a while now and better. Its just not original or innovative enough and the quality of songs is not consistent throughout.We love sufjan’s stuff in general – see our top ten indie tearjerkers list for example. Btw definitely is definitely not spelt like that.

  5. Max Says:

    Hi! I think Age of ADZ could be the best album of SS. When you listen to the autotune part of “Impossible Soul” you have to listen the backing vocals, I think is amazing, I hated at first but then I loved it, it is maybe the best part of the song, and I also think Sufjan is being ironic with that. Look the riot he has made with that “Autotune” part, I think that is really something.
    The rest of the album is simply great, I love “too much”, “Age of ADZ”, well I think all the songs are great.
    Sorry for my english, Im from Argentina

  6. CD Says:

    Okay, I’m sorry about spelling “definitely” wrong. Things like that happens now and then since English is not my mother tongue. We can continue this discussion in Swedish if you want, or maybe Spanish or German. I’m slightly better at those languages than English.

    Back to the so-called review. Even if it is your pet hate, I still think you should try to act professionally and look further than the few seconds of autotune/vocoder if you want to be taken seriously. To go into great detail about this irrelevant detail and then brush the rest of the album off by saying that Animal Collective has been doing “this stuff” better (what is that, mixing indie with electronica?), is just laughable to me, but to each their own. I just wish you would describe the album a bit better in case some people actually reads this review.

    I personally love the autotune/vocoder part and would say that Animal Collective has done some decent stuff but they’re one of the more overrated bands from the last decade. I would also say that this is by far the most soulful, honest, direct and cohesive album that Sufjan’s released. Almost every song on it is glued to my brain from the first listen through and a potential single (something you actually haven’t been able to say at all with his previous albums)… but, you know, that’s just my opinion.

  7. admin Says:

    CD, Where would we be without a diverse range of views? As my first editor once said, ‘if you please some people and annoy others then you are doing your job correctly. If you please everyone then its time for another career.’

    We could go round in circles reviewing each others reviews and comments..I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Thanks for taking so much time commenting on our review though. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

  8. Mr. F Says:

    This review rests on some very shallow musical comparisons. Yes, Animal Collective and Owen Pallett have used electronics in recent releases, but in no way does Animal Collective share a similar aesthetic, or write remotely relatable songs to the other two artists. Owen Pallett is more relevant, as his indie pop does share a classical influence, but his skill as a solo violinist gives him an entirely different presence than the more fully orchestrated Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan also has a much grander sense of scale, and unfortunately a religious fixation. They’re very different songwriters, and “The Age of Adz” stands as a hugely ambitious work that could only have come from Sufjan Stevens.

  9. CD Says:

    Sure, I usually don’t comment much on reviews for that reason, since it’s mostly just a matter of opinion.

    In this case, though, it was just too hard to stomach a lukewarm review basically based on the use of a simple vocoder when he – for once – is writing about himself without holding back or “fucking around”, raw and scary; about failure, desolation and thought about suicide and so on. Pearls before swine if you ask me. When I think about that I’m glad that I’m not working as either a musician or a reviewer for a living.

    Anyway, thanks for responding and let’s agree to disagree on this one.

Advertise Here

Photos from our Flickr stream

See all photos

Advertise Here