For at least five years, Sufjan Stevens has been treated as seriously as church in indie circles. Try this: Walk up to an attendee of any indie-centric concert and suggest the guy isn’t perfect. Maybe talk about how he had a song on Illinois (“John Wayne Gacy”) that’s central point was that everyone has the capacity to serial rape and kill children and bury them in their yard, and how that seems like a pretty reductive way to see serial killers. See if you don’t get scoffed at, or worse.
Which is why it’s weird that Stevens himself seems to be convinced that we don’t see him as perfect; he thinks we think he’s just goofing off. “I’m not fucking around,” he whines over and over on “I Want to Be Well” on his new album, The Age of Adz. That sort of becomes the mission statement of the 70-minute album (the last word of which, by the way, is pronounced “odds”). Of all the things you could call it — classic, self-absorbed, prog-rock, pretentious — it is definitely not a fuck-around.
Stevens has spent those five years in the wilderness releasing orchestral albums about highways (The BQE), being shackled to that hokey 50-states project he never intended on finishing, and having every fart reported about breathlessly on the blogs. The Age of Adz, though, is an Important album, one that proves Stevens no longer sees himself as the literary indie-popper chronicling the plight of the Upper Peninsula. No, he’s a composer now, more interested in 25-minute movements (like “Impossible Soul,” the closing track here) that showcase his sense of melody and drama and his exciting electronic deconstructions than doing more three-minute explorations of a state’s history or his relation to God. Not coincidentally, The Age of Adz is also his best album to date.
In his label Asthmatic Kitty’s announcement of the album in August, it painted Adz as an electronic album with Stevens’ sweeping orchestral flourishes. And that’s exactly what it is; it often sounds like church music from inside of the mainframe, a mashup of the best of the 21st century with the best of the 16th. The regal “I Walked” and its skittering electronics and chamber choir plays like a statement across the void, an organic response in a time of digitization. The flute-led “Vesuvius,” too, perfectly blends the two opposing musical styles to great effect.
You could probably claim this move toward more digital production is a serious stylistic left-turn for Stevens, but he’s been screwing around (not fucking around, remember) with electronics since 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit. And his ridiculously overblown cover of Castanets’ “You Are The Blood” on last year’s Dark Was The Night pointed in this direction all along. Songs like the sprawling and Fantasia 2010-ready title track, lead single “Too Much,” and the jaunty “Get Real Get Right” aren’t as immediate or trailer-friendly as those on Illinois, but in some respects the heights they hit feel more earned. When Stevens was backing his earnest lyrics with sweeping orchestration straight out of the Met, he was easier to digest. But when he makes memorable songs with interrupting electrical breakdowns that break up the beauty, he’s on top of his game in a way that would seem impossible.
After all, Stevens went the difficult route with this album: He could have just banged out a half-assed album about Delaware four years ago and still have everyone bending over backward to praise him. Instead he toiled for five years, hit upon a (slightly) new approach, improved as an arranger and delivered this, an album that will challenge listeners to get into his headspace, instead of delivering them what they expected. And it rewards those who stick around. Of all the albums declared as “growers” thus far this year, this one deserves that title the most. Each pass cements that Stevens has done the impossible yet again: He’s released another album that’s both genre-defining and genre-defying.