Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sufjan Stevens takes a left turn on Age of Adz

Genre: Psychedelic/Folk/Experimental
Asthmatic Kitty
Running Time: 74:51

One of the great things about Sufjan Stevens is that he is never complacent. Stevens built his name as an indie folk god before unleashing 2005's Illinois, an odyssey into freak folk featuring acoustic guitars, dynamic arrangements, and a smorgasbord of well placed sound effects.

Fans hoping for more of the same might be let down by his latest, The Age of Adz, but Stevens uses the record to demonstrate one of his greatest strengths - his ability to adapt and evolve.

On The Age of Adz, Stevens has almost entirely dropped his folk/acoustic influences and has added electronic and ambient influences to his palette. And the zany arrangements that defined Illinois are more elaborate and over the top than ever, although you would never know that from the opener, "Futile Devices," styled much more in the mold of "John Wayne Gacy Jr." from the Illinois album. It's simple, effective, and beautiful.

After that song, however, be prepared to take a proverbial trip down the rabbit hole. "Too Much" features a slew of electronic beats while a zipping sound effect occurs in the background. Meanwhile, Sufjan's voice is floating along over it all like nothing's going on. That gives way to a spacey, mellow ambient section before coming back with one more blast of weirdness at the end.

The title track features a bleeping and booping electronic beat while a menagerie of sound effects clutter up the background, while "Now that I'm Older" starts with gospelly oohs and ahhs, before leading into Stevens's loopy, slightly demented vocal. Outside of the opener the folk element has almost totally vanished, although "Vesuvius" opens with a nice mellow acoustic section and "The Age of Adz" works a little of that into the mix as well.

Lyrically, the album has some great creative imagery going on, and the love letter that is "Impossible Soul" certainly has the power to move you. 

Of course, I couldn't go without mentioning the album's closer, "Impossible Soul," which clocks in at nearly half an hour. It's bombastic and grandiose to be sure, without necessarily being consistent over the course of its staggering 25:34 running time. It's got it's moments sure, but you can't deny that it also has its moments of repetitiveness.

The Age of Adz represents a major shift away from Illinois, but it comes with mixed results. If anything, I think Stevens may be guilty of trying too hard. Illinois represented the perfect balance of weird and wacky effects combined with well composed folk influenced music.

But on Adz the sound effects have taken over. There are just too many disparate background noises and effects on this album that don't go well together, and after a while it starts to give me a headache. There are moments of beauty on this album, but they're too few and far between.

I also have to call some of Stevens's vocal performance into question. I'm not sure if it's just because his vocals don't fit well with some of the backgrounds, or if it's an actual issue on Sufjan's part, but I noticed some moments on this album where he sounds whiny, and with the combination of the loopy background sounds it's more than enough to cause me to hit the skip button. There are also some repetitive moments, such as the last three minutes or so of "I Want to Be Well" or the end of "Impossible Soul," where he keeps repeating the same line.

I'm not saying this is a bad album, but it's certainly not for everyone. The Age of Adz is a very experimental record, even by Sufjan's standards, and there's a certain target audience he's trying to appeal to.  The album is somewhat like Animal Collective, in terms of the complex layering in almost every song. So, this album wasn't for me but if you think you might fit into the niche Stevens is aiming for by all means check this out. You might discover a new favorite.

Score: 70/100

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