It has been 5 years since Sufjan Stevens treated us to his widely celebrated seventh album Carrie & Lowell. It was a poetic, sensitive indie folk release which spared you no detail of his personal agony whilst still being approachable. It was far more straightforward and shorter than his (equally compelling) grand epics such as 2005’s Illinois, instead giving us the purest, simplest essence of him as a performer. Since Carrie & Lowell we have been given an uneven batch of collaboration records. The overindulgent solar system concept album Planetarium, the much more successful, restrained classical piano release The Decalogue and most recently the regal but half baked new age LP Aporia, written with Stevens’ stepfather Lowell Brams. Following these enjoyable but slight sideshows it is relief to reach The Ascension.
If Carrie & Lowell was Stevens at his simplest and most accessible, The Ascension is a leap in the opposite direction. Not only has he returned to long form, high concept compositions, he has re-embraced a style of glitchy, progressive synth music that he has not dabbled in since 2010’s The Age of Adz. This time round though he has arrived at a more refined, less scattershot approach, throwing out the guitar and strings entirely and focusing on a smaller, cohesive set of sounds. It is far better realised than The Age of Adz which is impressive as unusually for Stevens, these songs were written and recorded at pace with little outside interference.
The Ascension is informed by the current political and social hellscape we live in. Stevens wants to withdraw from our dysfunctional society. Throughout the record he takes everyone to task, especially God. He has never had a complex relationship with his faith before now, but here it sounds like he is, with the deepest regret, cutting ties with any notion of Christian belief. “I have kissed your lips like a Judas in heat.” The immaculately produced ‘Make me an Offer I Cannot Refuse’ is a dreamlike representation of this transitional and confused state. A complex network of shimmering synths sequence in and out of each other creating a luscious, almost over stimulating whole. This moves into the slow tempo ‘Run Away with Me’ which is more settled but withdrawn, focusing on overlapping, reverb drenched vocals. It is one of a few tracks to explore a meditative space where Stevens addresses the audience. ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ takes this approach then channels it into an intense, emotional crescendo, one of the highlights of the record.
It is not all profound epics. Seamlessly, within this same sonic universe, Stevens produces a couple of full on pop songs. You can hear him having a ball cheekily singing “I don’t want to play, I don’t want to play” over the chorus of ‘Video Games’. Closing track ‘America’ has more than enough hooks to both carry its 9 minute run time and justify the label “lead single”. This song describes Sufjan’s dystopian view of modern day America, simultaneously expressing his feelings of losing faith in his country and God. His lyrics read as the perspective of someone who in part blames the current state of their country on the political force of the Christian right. “Don’t do to me what you did to America”.
There are weirder songs too, ‘Ursa Major’ has a sharp and bizarre sequence of samples which burst through the backing production’s spacey vacuum, neatly underlined when Sufjan passionately declares “I want to love you”. The much darker ‘Death Star’ has a fierce but hazy late night feel, alarms and drawn out, ghostly chimes. It is The Ascension at its most challenging but moves into a sunnier remix of the same song with the start of ‘Goodbye to all That’. Mid song this cheerily transitions into something immensely sweet that almost invites you to clap along in time. The deliberate contrasts and similarities between these two tracks is rewarding. ‘Landslide’ weaves from loose, romantic sections to psychedelic ones, mixing fiddly, reversed guitars and grinding siren synths, the centrepiece being the magical flourishes he adds with his voice when he sings the title of the song.
The Ascension is one of my very favourite albums of the year despite the fact that it’s a lot to digest. Anyone listening to this album in the hope of a collection of instant hits to line their playlists will be sorely disappointed. Sufjan Stevens is clearly capable of this way of writing and will no doubt return to it, but on this album he is sharing a more obscure, richly detailed approach which does an awful lot with a small, focused collection of sounds. To me it is equally as enchanting as Illinous or Carrie & Lowell and is by far the best LP he has written in this style. This record has once again raised my estimations of Sufjan Stevens as an artist.
The Ascension is released on 25 September via Asthmatic Kitty Records.