Album: Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)


As with London buses, you wait ages for a new batch of proper songs from Sufjan Stevens, then get hit with a glut of them: little more than a month after his hour-long EP All Delighted People comes this 75-minute feast of complex new material - 11 songs culminating in the overwhelming 25-minute cri de coeur that is "Impossible Soul".

It's an intensely personal album - imagine the Greetings From Michigan and Illinoise albums with all the historical, geographical and mythical stuff cleaned out, to leave just the private reflections and autobiographical reminiscences, and you'll be close to the knotty song-cycle of love, sex and death that is The Age Of Adz. You'll be no closer to the musical style, however, which abandons the banjo-driven manner of those earlier albums in favour of a combination of scratchy electronic soundscapes, backing-vocal chorales, strings and wind arrangements. Yet again, this prodigal genius manages to confound expectations, confirming his place as modern music's most protean artist.

Things open deceptively with "Futile Devices", Stevens reflecting on the fallibility of words in expressing love, over a delicate blend of harp-like picking and piano. So far, so organic; but "Too Much" shatters the mood, its explosive electronic glitch-scape resolving into a staccato dubstep pulse upon which are layered hints of melody, tints of electronic chords, Eastern-flavoured strings, birdlike woodwind, bathetic trombone and interlaced strata of harmonies, building over seven minutes to an epiphanic climax. It's a template followed by several tracks, most impressively in "I Walked", where a heavenly choir helps Stevens lament the collapse of a love affair over glitchy beats and gentle synth chords. "I'm already dead," he suggests ominously, "but I've come to explain why I left such a mess on your floor."

There's something obsessive about many of these songs, in which love and death reign darkly over an imaginative landscape peopled with apparitions, ghosts, orators and space travellers, which perhaps explains the artwork's adaptation from the late outsider artist "Prophet" Royal Robertson, a black sign-painter driven insane by delusions of adultery on the part of his wife, Adell: after she left him, he fulminated against her in myriad cartoonish artworks of space beings and futuristic cityscapes littered with numerological calendars of her betrayal and expletive-laden denunciations, each now worth around $900 (£570) apiece to folk-art collectors.

Stevens doesn't become quite so intemperate here, though there's something possessed about the concluding "Impossible Soul", a huge multi-sectioned arrangement tracking the singer's emotional excavation of a failed romance, which builds to a climactic self-help chant ("It's a long ride, better hit yourself, put your face together, better stand up straight – boy, we can do much more together, gotta get it right, get it right, it's not impossible") before fading to the first of several fake endings, refusing to die as it returns in dubstep form, then as a mea culpa set to delicate fingerpicking. It's a massive, obsessive, complex work which seeks to peel away the protective skin to bare Stevens' naked, often conflicted, emotional state – and isn't that one of the prime concerns of art?

DOWNLOAD THIS I Walked; Impossible Soul; Too Much; Age Of Adz

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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