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For an artist with such an obvious interest in story and narrative, it’s a surprise to see The Age of Adz, his first album proper since 2005’s Illinois, declare at the end of its opening ballad that "words are futile devices". That line acts as a clarion call for the tone of the record, one apparently loosely based on the imagery of American artist and schizophrenic ‘prophet’ Royal Robinson. If narrative consistency was paramount before, here fragmentation and obliqueness are ever-present. Too Much is suffused with Kid A-like sighing synths and waves of glitches, while the title-track comes across like the lost soundtrack to some strange 1930s sci-fi B movie, all blustering strings and choral harmonics.
There are some beautiful moments in amongst the manic electronic experimentation, but Stevens’ strength as a songwriter lies primarily in his sincerity, his ability to express intimacy without appearing cloying or saccharin. As such it’s the most subdued, personal songs on The Age of Adz that have the deepest impact, such as Now That I’m Older with its sad refrain of "somewhere I lost whatever else I had". Still, the over-riding sense here is of a world in pieces, and an artist in the process of shedding his former self. When Stevens shrieks at the end of I Want To Be Well, "I’m not f***ing around", you wouldn’t want to argue with him, let alone when the album ends with an extraordinary 25-minute piece, Impossible Soul, that amalgamates elements of folk, hip hop and everything in-between.
As with the rest of the album, though, the lengthy closer is suffused with individual moments of brilliance but let down by its self-conscious incoherence. The Age of Adz is a record to admire, rather than to love.--Sam Lewis
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