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.
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.
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?
by Joe Lepper