Review: Sufjan Stevens creates electronic world of inquiry

By RAGAN CLARK
Posted 9/25/20

Sufjan Stevens, “The Ascension” (Asthmatic Kitty)

Synthesized drums and dissected, distorted vocals open the upbeat electronic track “Lamentations” as Sufjan Stevens sings out: “I was …

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Review: Sufjan Stevens creates electronic world of inquiry

Posted

Sufjan Stevens, “The Ascension” (Asthmatic Kitty)

Synthesized drums and dissected, distorted vocals open the upbeat electronic track “Lamentations” as Sufjan Stevens sings out: “I was only thinking of human kindness/I am the future, define the future.”

It is this tenet that carries through “The Ascension” as Stevens acknowledges the turmoil around him but resolves to rise above. It is both a cautionary tale and a call to action. America may be burning, validation seeking may have become even further warped in a social media age, but, as Stevens articulates in the press release accompanying the album, the time has come to “be part of the solution or get out of the way.”

The 15-track “The Ascension” is one of Stevens’ more produced albums (most close in sound to 2010's “The Age of Adz”) and while the musical composition is highly experimental, the synth-pop album is accessible.

Following his last full-length album, 2015's sparse and haunting “Carrie & Lowell,” the change in tone and production is stark. There are still peaceful, ethereal tracks like “Run Away With Me” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” but the album as a whole communicates urgency. Where “Carrie & Lowell” saw Stevens looking internally, “The Ascension” sees Stevens respond to his external environment.

As with many Stevens albums, Biblical references abound, but in a way that invites skepticism, doubt and irreverence. In the closing track “America,” Stevens seems to question if God will abandon him in the same way he abandoned America as he critiques the country’s culture. “I'm ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he sings.

While the album explores an underlying current of righteous anger and hopelessness, there are times these feelings are transformed into personal agency.

On “Tell Me You Love Me,” what starts as a desperate plea for affection turns into resolve as the music flourishes and triumphant voices layer to sing: “I’m going to love you.” The control doesn’t have to lie in the hands of another. Stevens makes it his choice to move forward from a place of love.

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