This is a record that is going to divide opinion. Like many I became aware of Sufjan Stevens during the Michigan and Illinoise period, and like many I absolutely adored those records. I then explored his back catalogue and generally became a huge fan. Offerings since Illinois / Avalanch have been fairly sparse, and not so much to my liking, so the anticipation for this release has been building for some time. The various outtakes and other tracks released on the All Delighted People EP wetted the appetite - but again left me feeling underwhelmed, wondering if perhaps he had lost his way a bit - or perhaps just his new way was not to my liking.
On hearing this record my first reaction was one of confusion. Here once again was the Sufjan that I loved, fantastic tunes beautifully sung, and intensely moving. But interspersed with great dollops of electronic squelching, and worst of all, what sounded like vocoder (or perhaps autotune). The overall effect to me was that he had taken a beautiful collection of music and scribbled over it with electronic graffiti. The experience of listening was also rather exhausting. I play a lot of music when I am in the car - and I was finding that I was getting to the end of the Sufjan journeys feeling tired and emotional. But this is Sufjan Stevens, so I persevered.
And then something happened, after about half a dozen listens the songs started to make more sense. The electronic noises became less jarring and the sense of a cohesive vision started to overtake the fear that he might have let self indulgence take over. The slightly ragged rendition of some parts began to feel less shoddy and more like a deliberate way of expressing the feeling behind the music.
So my overall conclusion? I would have preferred a more straightforwardly beautiful album in the style of Illinoise. All the ingredients are here, and the man has a unique way with melody. My initial disappointment has given way to a profound respect for what he has attempted here. This is a very good album. I think some fans will genuinely love it, in the same way that some fans liked `enjoy your rabbit'. Some will, like me initially will think that in places it's a bit of a mess. My advice would be not to judge it too harshly on first hearing. There is real genius at work here. I think that there are major flaws, but overall this is an album that repays careful listening and time to settle into your imaginings. Not sure how often I will play it - it remains an exhausting experience - but respect to the man, he has made a brave record here.
In recent interviews Sufjan Stevens has stated that he is more interested in noises than lyrics and creating music. If that makes no sense then you are yet to experience The Age Of Adz. This is the first full offering since the quite brilliant Illinois. Part of the alleged 50 states project. And this work feels a bit like the death knell of that project. What was hinted at in the All Delighted People EP is all over this. That being squelches, long tracks and then end of the folk approach.
If you listen to Futile Devices, the opening track, you would think that what I am writing about is a different CD. Its beautiful, breathy and Sufjan at his Illinois best. And then Too Much follows it with electronic squelch, swagger and electronics all over it. Its here you realise the rules of the game have changed. Don't get me wrong. You know its Sufjan, its an evolution of the sound you are used to. But its a real departure that some find too far removed from previous work.
The title track is not my favourite track on the disc. But it pushes this new sound further as do the following tracks, orchestral vocals, electronic sounds swooshing, brass instruments and at the core the voice, the music and the thrill of a man confident enough to push his boundaries. Some of this is quite upbeat. Get real, get right is very much an upbeat number when it gets going. And yes some of these tracks take a while to hit their stride. And may take even longer to grow on you. But give them a chance.
And then this turns into that rare thing. A CD that has a better second half than the first. Vesuvius is a real grower of a track. All for Myself could almost sit well on any Sufjan CD. I Want To Be Well goes along at high tempo and the swearing in the refrain towards the end is unexpected and a tiny bit thrilling. In those words Sufjan encapsulates his whole approach to this project.
Which brings us to the last track. All 25 minutes and 34 seconds of it. Through the various arcs of Impossible Soul Sufjan ends this on a high. Yes it can be annoying that you have to listen for a while for this track to get going. But 13 minutes in the highlight (for this reviewer) of the whole CD starts. The middle of Impossible Soul is a wonderful piece of music. Uplifting and downright brilliant.
If you loved Seven Swans and thought that Enjoy Your Rabbit was a mistake then avoid this. If you are prepared for something different and prepared to listen to it a few times before it hits then this is for you. Certainly this is a departure. But its going to be very interesting to see the next direction.
Based on the schizophrenic prophesies of Royal Robertson,an American visionary artist,this is Sufjan Steven's 1st
album after 5 years,one hotly anticipated,considering his near despair a year or two ago at writing songs..Greatly inventive orchestration, providing glittery electronic soundscapes with depths of personal feeling and chorale harmonies, strings and wind arrangements,replete with infusions of manic energy.Here it is track by track:-
1)Futile Devices:guitar-picking,piano,double track voice"Words are futile devices" describes the fallibility of love.Simple opening track.
2)Too Much:Beautiful melodic sound tapestries with musical themes,repetetive song phrases weaving in and out ,with electronic flurries,synthesisers,string connections, distorted trombones,bursts of backing vocals,and climaxing in orchestral breakdown.
3)Age of Adz:Lovely choral sound backing to his poignant voice,string washes and wind instruments elevating the mood,industrial beats emphasising the vocals.
4)I walked:syncopated beat and synthesiser rising and falling.Choir assists Stevens lament the collapse of a love affair over glitchy beats." I'm already dead but I've come to explain why I left such a mess on the floor".Also " I walked away with a knife in my chest".
5)Now that I'm older:sad refrains,subdued tone:"Somewhere I lost whatever else I had".Gentle washing sounds,harmonies of choir.
6)Get Real,Get Right:electronic beat and sound:" Have you mistaken me for someone else?"Military drums,massed backing vocals,wind instruments,rising chords."Get right with the Lord". Apocalyptic.
7) Bad Communication:organ and double-track voice,electronic blips.
8)Vesuvius:piano,doubletrack voice and backing vocals,syncopated slow beat:"follow
your heart,follow the joy",electronic dripping noises amidst an ending of flutes.
9)All for myself: Stevens voice with backing vocals,piano and flutes,electronic ripples.
10)I want to be well: drums,flutes,electronic beeps, repetition of vocals:"Well I want to be"," I'm not f....ing around"overlappping each other,background vocals.
11)Impossible Soul:25 minute piece, huge multi-sectioned arrangement tracking the singer's emotional excavation of a failed romance, which builds to a climactic self-help chant ("It's a long ride, better hit yourself, put your face together, better stand up straight - boy, we can do much more together, gotta get it right, get it right, it's not impossible") before fading to the first of several fake endings, refusing to die,coming back again. Beautiful guitar breaks,doubletrack voice,harmonic chorale.
This record grows on you after a few listens,rewarding you with this young man's great talent.
on 1 January 2011
Firstly an apology, I cannot hold a candle to the other reviewers here and I will not try, you must read what they have to say for their eloquently penned critique.
I just feel compelled to say my piece.
OMG, Sufjan has done it again with this album 'The age of Adz'.
You see, I love many genres from classical to Rock, but believe me this guy is in a league of his own, he is a musical genius, of that I have no doubt, the like of which has not been seen since Lennon and McCartney, Beethoven or Bach. However appreciation of this does not always come easy, as with much of the better musical works, you often need to go through a pain barrier before the true beauty comes to you.... when it does you will never look back. Sufjan's talent is awesome, don't take my word for it, buy the album and listen listen listen, it's magic will be revealed to you.
on 22 October 2010
I've had this album a week and played it dozens of times already. Every time I hear something new. It's a wonderful piece of work, fractured, melodic, heart-rending, unique.
I've always liked Sufjan Steven's music - or rather, the gentle guitar-based stuff he's done. Seven Swans, Michigan, Illinoise, the Avalanche. He is an excellent songwriter, and the clash between the sweetness of the melody and voice and the harshness of the lyrics in songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr and Romulus is breathtaking. And yet, song on song, the overall effect can get syrupy. It's just too pretty. It needed something to cut against the sweetness.
Maybe Stevens came to this conclusion too, for the Age of Adz provides an edge absent in those earlier albums. Using electronica like someone who's just learned its possibilities, he adds jarring sounds and chopped rhythms to the basic songs. Yet the melodies are there still, sweet sad verses and rousing choruses. The combination of the two is compelling and spectacular.
And the lyrics. It's difficult to pin down what he's singing about specifically. God? Love? Sexuality? Whatever, the words are intimate and vulnerable and yearning. They hint at loss, at broken hopes and missed opportunities, yet there is an optimism within them that is wildly uplifting, and suggests that Stevens' spirit is anything but crushed.
The songs vary in style and tone, from the discordant joyfulness of the Age of Adz to the sublime beauty of I Walked, one of those songs right up there with the very best melodies of his, or anybody else's, career. And then there is the splendour of Impossible soul, all 25 minutes and 34 seconds of it. Like a beautiful collage, it shifts from section to section, from plaintive song to rousing chants, and each time it comes to an end I can't believe how quickly the time has gone.
I don't know what prompted Sufjan Stevens to produce such an album, but I am so glad that he did. If you like this album half as much as I do, you're going to like it very very much indeed.
on 16 November 2010
It does need the patience to listen to the album through a couple of times, but what appears is a grand epic. In many ways a much more adventurous than previous albums.
With Michigan, Illinoise and the outtakes album Avalanche, I'd personally got a bit tired of the twee beauty of Sufjan's folk output (blown away initially by Illinoise, but less so with each additional similar purchase). Don't get me wrong, they are great recordings, but I yearned for some of the beauty of Illinoise with some of the madness/Creativity of Enjoy your rabbit and this is definitely it. Illinoise may have been the album you could play to your mother and she'd tap her feet along to it, but Adz is an album to sit back and take in on your own, headphones on, appreciating the originality and sonic experimentation.
It doesn't have the hits of Illinoise and some of the noises will initially jar, but there is so much to take from this album, I'd advise all to spend the pittance that it costs and give it some time and love.
The new album by the "coolest musician in America" (Sunday Times) starts off by flattering to deceive. "Futile Devices" the opening track to Sufjan Stevens new set of songs could have happily appeared on the outstanding "Seven Swans" and is a gentle bubbling track with a fragile folksy beauty which Stevens can appear to evoke with consummate ease. So then Stevens is clearly going to compensate for his abandonment of his 50 state album cycle promise with a return to earlier glories?
No such chance, indeed while the ""he Age of Adz" has some transcendent moments, this is primarily an album of electronic soundscapes, whose trajectory can be loosely traced back in Stevens musical past to 2002's largely electronic Chinese Zodiac concept album "Enjoy your Rabbit". It is therefore not surprising that the critical reception to this album thus far has been in places bemused and quizzical (and in Uncut's case characterised by outright hostility questioning whether our hero is "a genius or just a show off").
The line between originality and over indulgence is of course a thin one but in Stevens case his ability to make his music soar is the special ingredient. For example the second track "Too much" is Sufjan Stevens meets Yeasayer and a joyous electronic concoction. The funky electronica of "I walked" revolves around an almost trip hop big synth loop and has Stevens trademark angelic vocals and surreal lyrics where he asks "Lover, will you look from me now/I'm already dead/but I've come to explain/why I left such a mess on the floor". Other highlights also include the gently rolling 'Vesuvius' which concentrates on giving self advice and messages to himself and "Bad communication" a short beautiful fragment of a song. The title track is alternatively; erm what's the word I'm looking for, yes thats it ....mental! A tribute of sorts to the weird abstract art of Louisiana based Royal Robertson it starts off with great Wagnerian voices then Stevens singing through cat calls and symphonic whistles over an eight minute hodgepodge powerhouse that has to heard to be believed not least the lovely acoustic end.
And then we have the final track the 25 minute (I kid you not!) "The Impossible Soul" which is a mini album in its own right and a sort of Tubular Bells for the Twitter Generation which wanders far and wide. It starts conventionally and then leads into a strange exhortation where Stevens cheekily pleads with us "Don't be distracted", has a lovely vocoder section, at 13 minutes sounds like Kraftwerk for 30 seconds and then has one of those "Illinois" style chants for a further 8 minutes around the refrain of "boy we can do much more together" underpinned by all sort of beeps, electronic synths and weird machinations. It finishes with a fairly straightforward but gorgeous Stevens song with the "boy" lyrical refrain back again. Oh look, listen to it yourself and connect with a song which has sections which will variously bore you, amaze you and often leave you in tears.
The "Age of Adz" is album devoid of discipline, restraint or brevity. It is a smorgasbord of ideas some of which work brilliantly, others fail gallantly and a few never get out of the starting gate. Certainly this a very different proposition to the mix of orchestrated packed bravado combined with the wintry acoustics of "Michigan" and "Illinois". Yet if the masterful experimentation of both those albums left you gasping for more "The Age of Adz" should hold no fear for you for this is pop or rock music in its loosest sense. Last year Stevens wrote a Stravinsky inspired album dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and only two months ago he released an EP entitled "All you delighted people" which extended to well over an hour. Stevens is a composer packed with musical ideas some great, some claptrap, some challenging and some sublime. What is the truth is that there no one else out there working this distinctive seam in this fashion and thereby "The Age of Adz" is full testimony to Stevens uniqueness and it should therefore be a cause of great celebration and rejoicing for this is not so much an album release as a musical event.
on 13 October 2010
It's pretty unusual for me to think a record deserves 5 stars but after several listens of the new Sufjan Stevens, I think it deserves nothing else. As one of the reviewers previously says - it won't be for everyone, but it does deserve at least a couple of listens for the real beauty of this record to shine through what at first might appear nothing other than random electronic glitchyness behind each song.
I don't know if I agree that this is the radical departure other reviewers elsewhere have written about - some people may well think this on a first listen, in the way that many fans of Radiohead's OK Computer thought that Kid A was just as far removed; but as with Kid A - which most definitely had its roots in Radiohead's earlier work, "The Age Of Adz" is undeniably Sufjan Stevens and very familiar with it. The Kid A comparison rings true I think, especially in how this album will be recieved. Just as some Radiohead fans want nothing more than that band to produce another OK Computer or The Bends, some Sufjan fans will want him to carry on writing a thousand more songs which sound just like Chicago. This record is - at least for me - a much more exciting prospect, and the sound of an extraordinarily gifted musician, composer and songwriter stretching his abilities and seeking more than just resting on a style I am positive he could have fallen straight back on. This is the sound of an artist evolving.
The album opens with a short, but very pretty acoustic guitar driven "Futile Devices" before the squelchy opening drum beat of "Too Much" - one of the record's many highlights, and probably the closest sounding to previous work - with a great chorus and in the second half, many of the orchestral flourishes you'd expect from Sufjan weaving in and out of the electronics.
Some speculation has been made about Sufjan's mental state during the recording of this record - whether it is a true reflection of where he was during the writing and recordings or not, the themes of the songs often appear to float around depression, and salvation. The album title itself refers to a work by Royal Robertson, an artist who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. "I want to be well, I want to be well, I need to be well" echoes the refrain in "I Want To Be Well", as Stevens howls "I'm not f***ing around" repeatedly over the top, before album closer "Impossible Soul" - all 25 minutes of it - loops and weaves its way through a myriad of different emotions and musical spaces. It's not only brave, it's beautiful, and it acts as a kind of one-movement concentration of everything that has gone before. By the time it reaches a low drone at around the 22.20 mark, an acoustic guitar returns to the forefront along with a softly intoned vocal. Ending the song he quietly repeats, in a heartfelt relection of his love, "Boy, we made such a mess/Together".
I think it would be a real shame for people to take a listen to this record - realise there's no "Chicago" and switch off from it. There is true beauty here and the electronic instrumentation only adds to the music by simply making it that much more interesting - something sadly lacking in many releases of late. Give it a chance - this one is destined to be a classic.
on 16 January 2011
This is the 1st album that I have bought by Sufjan having seen it reviewed in a Hi Fi magazine. I have not stopped playing it since it arrived. It is classified as folk music, but I see its appeal as being far wider than that. I have also been listening to snippets of his other albums on Grooveshark and have now ordered the Illinoe album. The BQE album will be next. Buying the Age of Adz has renewed my interest in music, I am an old crusty 63 year old and I have been listening to music since the days of Buddy Holly. Go buy The Age of Adz its great!
on 2 November 2010
Other reviewers do a finer job than me in extolling the wonder of this latest Sufjan Stevens release, so I'll keep it brief.
Having read a couple of dismissive reviews in the press, I was prepared to be disappointed. I did, however, download the 'all delighted people' EP from Asthmatic Kitty's website and was impressed enough to think the critics might be wrong about the impending new album.
And how wrong they were! Few musicians could get away with combining folk, choral, electronica, auto-tune R&B, orchestration, rock and roll, psychedelia and wonderful 'pop' sensibilities in one album, but Sufjan does it on one track (Age of Adz)!
The first time you hear it, it's like listening to the sound of an orchestra falling down the stairs, being chased by R2D2 and C3PO, but after two or three repeats, it's wonder emerges - especially at the 5.00 mark when the emotive key changes and the cry 'I lost the will to fight' brings the song to its quiet, contemplative acoustic close.
I think this is one of the most remarkable records I've ever heard (so I'm looking back through the Stevens catalogue right now). if OK Computer was the record of the last century, maybe we've the first real contender for the new one. Mesmerising.