11 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #1: The Age of Adz and Extraterrestrial Parasites

At some point in the last year or two, aliens laid eggs in Sufjan Stevens's brain. Evidently, these eggs hatched just as the gorgeous, harp-like guitar texture of The Age of Adz's opener - 'Futile Devices' - draws to its delicate close. Yes, Sufjan has gone electronic, but the style that is introduced on second track 'Too Much', along with most of the rest of the album, is not that of the trippy, explorative, unbridled Sufjan of his latest EP, of Enjoy Your Rabbit, or of his other most alien moment to date: Dark Was The Night's 'You Are The Blood'. Sufjan is back in song mode (against all odds, even album mode) and somewhere behind The Age of Adz is another perky songbook of pioneer fanfares and cheerleader folk choirs. There are some brilliant upbeat melodies; 'Too Much', 'I Walked' and 'Get Real, Get Right' are all, in their way, relentlessly pop. Moreover, most of his familiar troops are out in force: the girl choirs, the flute scales, the triumphant brass. It's upbeat Sufjan at his most distinctive - and yet, what's that crawling down the inside of his spinal column? Sufjan's sound-world has been quite literally invaded by a huge new alien palette.

The insectoid buzzes and hums, lumbering and limping beats, squelches, bleeps and launchpad whooshes not only swamp the timbre of the album, but they build their strange structures over what should seem like regular patterns, infecting them across every conceivable dimension. Take, for instance, the title track. Accompanied by a more conventional arrangement, this same melody could form the basis of a fairly simple song. As it is, though, the vocal track is suspended over a booming chasm - some impenetrable valley borrowed from Metroid or Halo and ringing with the voices of inconceivable organisms. The sense of metre is toppled, noises burst out like swamp bubbles and clash in acrid false relations, the procedure of textures and dynamics follows a bizarre structural contour moving rapidly from howling vents of noise to muted burbling and back again. Within this negative universe, even Sufjan's familiar flute trills and brass choruses are made to sound alien.

However, as with many of these songs, the track is gradually stripped of its most outlandish armour through the course of its eight short minutes, rattling onwards like some turn-of-the-century robot whose tin-plate flanks keep falling away. The song culminates in a final verse for just acoustic guitar and voice, a glimpse of the flesh within. Does this stripping away represent some resistance to the parasite on Sufjan's part? I would say so, based on the evidence of the record as a whole. While the electronic arrangements represent a definite sense of chaos, heard especially in a tendency towards dissonance quite new to Sufjan, they also confer a new, unmannered sense of jubilation. The parasite's effect on him is an intoxicating one, and it transforms more than just his compositions. Like the little leech slugs in Shivers, the effect of this strange strain appears to be a delightful and potentially dangerous loss of inhibition.

Sufjan the voice, Sufjan the lyricist, Sufjan the performer: they've all been transformed. Turning from the idyllic William Blake of the 50 States project, he's found a new multi-media mystic to suit his space face and it's the vindictive and lurid Royal Robertson. Religion is still there, but it's more troubled and troubling than ever before. The biggest difference is that Sufjan is more of an ego here than he's ever been. The words are less descriptive, less narrative, there are no characters or histories, only the singer and his present troubles. This shift from lyrical telling to lyrical showing - towards a more performative embodiment of the words - is accompanied by a shift in vocal style: higher, louder, more 'showy'. Such a move, away from the campfire and onto the stage, necessitates a shift in focus away from the substance of the lyrics, and accordingly they're less interesting and less audible, although the vocals are no less important. This is the biggest change in the record - the de-emphasis of one of the songwriter's greatest facets, which takes its greatest toll on the album's downbeat tracks. This is where, instead of extending his legacy of delicate folk songs, Sufjan really steps into new territory. 'Now That I'm Older' weaves clouds of ghostly voices like Grizzly Bear, and proceeds through ponderous chords like Animal Collective at their most diaphanous. 'All For Myself' even approaches chillwave as it hovers on a fluctuating hum. For all its new directions, however, The Age of Adz would have been a far poorer album without the acoustic 'Futile Devices' and the equally classic 'Vesuvius' which builds from a perfectly soft opening to a huge choral prayer. These acoustic moments aren't just an obligatory nod to whisper-quiet anthems such as 'Casimir Pulaski Day', 'John Wayne Gacy Jr' and 'Seven Swans' and the fans these tracks won. As mentioned before, there is a dialogue with this old, more restrained, more selfless and more stable Sufjan throughout the record, as fits of beats break out and then subside to nothing. While this struggle spans the entire record, its greatest battle is fought within the twenty-five minutes that form the final track: 'Impossible Soul'.

I'd been dreading this epic closer since I first glanced down the early press releases for the record. As I mentioned when discussing the All Delighted People EP a few months ago, Sufjan has developed this thing for massive-scale compositions, and these have often been quite formless: maximalist variations on simple looped tunes, psychedelic jam sessions or similarly Dionysian follies. Well, this is certainly not the case for 'Impossible Soul' - a showdown between campfire Sufjan and the brain aliens in the form of a seamlessly mixed DJ set. It's an episodic track, so much so that it occasionally almost stops altogether, yet this is certainly for the best as it is comprised of some very strong individual parts, while easily avoiding stagnation. Articulated between five loose sections, the song follows a lyrical arch of initial desperate supplication, some neurotic words of warning voiced by guest Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, a pivotal moment of self-chastisement, a long and rousing chorus of burgeoning self-belief, and finally an honest and intimate afterthought. While Sufjan does repeatedly address a 'woman' in the song's first section, the lyrics without doubt record a journey into his own 'impossible soul'. Accordingly, the alien invasion of the whole album is re-enacted as the cyclical melody of the singer's increasingly embittered rant, and that of his obsessive worries, are gradually surrounded by noises of growing outlandishness and rhythmic complexity. This dissolves into a kind of amorphous segue from which, ten minutes in, as if glimpsed at the centre of some shimmering wormhole, Sufjan's vocodered shadow-self begins to sing. The use of a vocoder in a Sufjan Stevens song is exciting enough, but in its ingenious employment to characterise this hyper-performative, hyper-melismatic, hyper-falsetto Cyber-Sufjan, it marks the most distant point from the organic acoustic picking of the album's opening. There then kicks in an escalating groove and a redemptive, sing-along chorus which gradually exorcises the alien ego in the singer's cerebral cortex, while simultaneously being the most danceable thing that Sufjan has yet produced.

With a last vocodered flourish and the gentle sparking up of machinery, the chorus evaporates into a coda. You can even hear the spaceship lifting off four minutes from the end. And we're left where we started - a gorgeous multi-layered acoustic guitar track, and Sufjan at his most real and human, crisis managed, catharsis achieved. These final few minutes, which re-work the extraterrestrial dance chorus into a devastatingly fragile epilogue are some of the best of the record, and they reflect on the album-long spasm of cosmic panic with the resounding reflection: 'Boy, we made such a mess together'. Whether the aliens are gone for good, we might have to wait another few years to discover.

Futile Devices by michel-heberton
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz - 03 Age of Adz by anavisan