I Love This Album: The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
The Age of Adz: A Phantasmagoria of Hysterical, Apocalyptic Melodrama
By Nick Soucy
A cultural journalist and lyrical anthropologist to the historical, weird, wild and grotesque, Sufjan is also a sensitive, loving man who asks big questions of himself and the world. He is an empathic figure with robust humanity spilling out of every song. Whether his songs are simple and spare, marked by long silences and echoes (as with his first 5 studio albums), or grandiose cacophonies like an Amadeus symphony (as with his sixth proper album, The Age of Adz), his songs always burst at the seams with veiled meaning and subtext — packing in maximum artistry as well as any Mozart concerto. The challenging songs drill inside your psyche and make you ruminate long into the night. They are as mesmerizing as they are poignant.
One might assume that The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”) is a less-than-subtle a pun on how strange this album is. Not only strange in the sense of being an alien-level departure from his other albums, but also odd in its very content. Alas, rumor has it from interviews — assuming we have a reliable narrator in Sufjan — that the misspelling is merely a direct quote from Royal Roberts’ writings and illustrations.
Royal Roberts, the inspiration for the title and visual art, was a paranoid schizophrenic artist living in obscurity in a ramshackle home deep in the bayou. A Louisiana folk painter and self-proclaimed “prophet,” as he is described in the album’s liner notes.
Of course, this raises the question about Royal’s artistic intents when he proclaims — “This is the age of adz — eternal living.” Is this about the rapture? Ascension into the afterlife; whether banjo-plucking angels in paradise or a spiraling pit of hellfire? His preoccupation with Armageddon seems to suggest this is true.
Sufjan’s music is always tinged with at least a gossamer underpinning of religion, although he admits in interviews he tries not to be too heavy-handed with his spirituality; lest he alienate fans. He seems to struggle with existential questions. He is nothing if not philosophical and at times, deliberately overdramatic.
This album still brings a welcome and beautiful psychic pain every time I listen to it, especially after a gap of a few years. But upon the first few listens, it really shook me to my core. It’s hard to recapture the magic of that first listen. It seemed as primal as it was prophetic. A profound meditation on the human condition, on the nature of the universe, on the inner workings of the mind. It seems everything and nothing at the same time, which is perhaps the essence of religion, stripped bare. It is a curiosity that declares knowledge with certainty and hopefulness, while acknowledging skepticism lurking around the corner with the truth.
The first track, “Futile Devices,” eases the listener into the album with familiar strums of guitars, nothing too electronic just yet. Reminiscent of his previous albums. His longer songs test the limits of patience (Impossible Soul clocks in at 25 minutes and change), but they also transition enough to seem like multiple songs that flow together and can hardly be accused of being dull.
The title song, Age of Adz, is certainly one of the strongest and most jarring, with computer noises and Auto-Tune and abrupt dubstep-jazzy discord. To me, the most arresting lyric is: “When I die, I’ll rot… but when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got.” A call to action, I wonder — as I listen, enraptured by the melancholy anthem. Or is it a recognition of this mortal life being all we have? Struggling with his belief in the afterlife? A manifesto of forward motion, hurtling toward cosmic accomplishment and excellence. Death is inevitable. So let’s LIVE.
Age of Adz, follows the formula that was popular in many album mixes, which is to make the third song one of the strongest. Lyrically, this is one of the most interesting. It speaks in literary and religious metaphor, like the most epic of Greek tragedies and myths. It is grand and awesome and evokes apocalyptic visions.
He goes on to lament “I’ve lost the will to fight.” Fight to live, or fight against his own beliefs? The lyrics are mysterious and open to interpretation, but that’s part of the literary beauty of this composition.
As an artist who speaks candidly about his Catholicism, Sufjan’s music seems to reflect religious shame and yearning to rebel against tradition. Listeners can feel his fear of judgment and his desire to throw caution to the wind, while embracing true love. This allows him to live as a bold and unrestrained artist while still staying in the bounds of his religion.
With “I Walked,” the first single and the most harmonic ballad, the synthesizer weirdly reminds me of Ray Kurzweil’s keyboards, and further, of Kurzweil’s futurism and existential philosophy surrounding artificial intelligence. This album seems like a “singularity” in and of itself. A Big-Bang style birth of something magnificent and dark and wonderful. A rebirth for Sufjan’s artistic style. A nascent genre of new and unpredictable music.
On a literal level, it makes me think it’s a tribute for Elliot Smith, who “left a mess on the floor” after “stabbing himself in the chest.” Yet, it is more likely a song about unrequited or disastrous love. Maybe the two are the same. After all, love is often a suicide of the ego.
Sufjan’s lyrics and melodies are notoriously sad and solemn. The most common mood for his best songs is heartbreaking. Achingly beautiful and tortured self-doubt, gilded with bitter jealousy. It is as evocative as the listener’s state of mind while taking it all in. Indeed, it has meant so many different things to me upon different listens, sometimes years between revisiting, after I’ve transformed into a completely new man with completely new ears for music.
There’s an explosiveness to this music, a chaotic violence, frenzied and raw with emotion and juvenile yearning as much as mature lamentation of the struggles of life. As he shouts passionately in “I Want to be Well,” he’s “Not FUCKING AROUND.” And when it comes to life’s big questions, neither should we.
This album runs the gamut of emotion, leaps across a broad spectrum of love-filled trills and dance-worthy hooks and dubstep beats that drop in your stomach, churning a reaction to the abruptness to songs like “Too Much.” Sounds effects of laser guns and 80s video games. Fluttering flutes, jazzy alto sax, familiar banjo twangs and computer synth distortion reminiscent of Thom York’s most anxious arrangements. It is almost anxiety-inducing at the end of “Too Much.” It really is too much. And then it calms down into powerful, heartrending ballots as the album progresses.
This album is experimentalism of the highest order. The folk wisdom is still present, it’s just wrapped in something more enigmatic, a fabric of mysterious and colossal power. His arrangements are lush, vibrant and layered. His voice shakes and trembles as much as it soars with bombast and outrage. He exudes compassion and sensitivity while crying out with a principled rage and fury. His music, like his inspiration, can be described as “schizophrenic,” with all due respect to that condition and all its challenging manifestations and personal burdens.
It’s something of an otherworldly feat that Sufjan could weave together music that is at once painstakingly meticulous and polished and at the same time unpredictable like the most manic of jazz experimentalism. He is free form in his cohesiveness. He brings order to cosmic chaos. His songs are pandemonium and they are gospel from a great seer on high.
He uses the first version of Autotune that doesn’t seem cheap and contrived. Indeed, it amplifies the futuristic and agonizing frustration he is venting with these most confessional of lyrics. One gets the impression that music is therapy for Sufjan, perhaps even more than it is therapy for his adoring fans, which is no small accomplishment.
On some tracks he seems world-weary, exhausted by life and effort, but then restless and yearning for action, for change and for reinvention. Renaissance of the mind. Mental health achieved through the meditation of music.
There is a deliberate overarch of glitch-iness in the computer sounds, a sort of white noise static and distortion that seems to serve as a metaphor for the incessant voices and inner demons suffered by mankind, not only the healthy mind of the examined life, but the tortured schizophrenic especially. There is harmony is his conflict, and ugliness in his beauty.
With “Now That I’m Older” we get a treatise on the wisdom that comes with age, longing for the bliss and innocence of youth, begrudgingly accepting the pain and responsibility of adulthood.
“Vesuvius,” by contrast, is one of the album’s most haunting and evocative masterpieces. He revisits some of his journalist/historian roots with this meditation on Pompeii and the 2,000 year-old eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that violently wiped the city off the map. It serves as perfect allegory for the album’s apocalyptic themes, and yet, lyrically, seems to reflect Sufjan’s own inner turmoil bubbling over, with lines like “Sufjan, the panic inside/the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore,” which perhaps is a battle with his own demons that mirror those demons that Royal fought in his own head. “Why does it have to be so hard?” he asks later in the song, about the struggles of life’s tribulations.
In interviews, Sufjan stated that he suffered from a debilitating viral infection that wreaked havoc on his nervous system. He was in pain, both mental and physical, and had to take a convalescing hiatus from his art several months. He explained that “The Age of Adz, is a result of that process of working through health issues… getting much more in touch with my physical self.” He went on to describe the overall tone as having “a hysterical melodrama,” which is the most succinct encapsulation of this album.
I can never get through this album without succumbing to awe-inspired goosebumps.
Age of Adz showcases Sufjan Stevens at his most ambitious, his most experimental, his greatest heights as an indie torch song crooner-cum-folk superstar. He is a maestro, and this is his greatest masterpiece. Alongside Radiohead’s OK Computer, this is a rare album that I believe is, in a word: perfect.
I Love This: is a reoccurring feature from In Kind where writers and readers review a favorite work by a favorite artist of theirs.