Photograph by Danny Renshaw

“I’m sorry we’re so all over the place tonight,” Sufjan Stevens conceded to a sold-out concert hall in Boston recently, his forehead accented with fluorescent tape. “The future, and hippies, and the ‘80s, and Lady Gaga, and Lindsay Lohan. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

He could just as well have been talking about his costume—it involved fairy wings and a silver lamé space-blazer—as about the grab-bag aesthetics of his show. Or he could have been talking about the new album he’s touring to support. The Age of Adz (sounds like “odds”) is the work of an unbelievably talented musician and aesthete who doesn’t appear to have worked out quite who or what he wants to be.

The answer to that question seemed to be fairly clear in the aftermath of 2005’s Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, an epic, introverted baroque-folk mess and a consensus masterpiece of the ‘00s. Since then, the few releases we’ve heard from Stevens (2009’s The BQE symphony, this year’s All Delighted People EP, and an excellent contribution to the Dark Was The Night compilation) have sketched a steady migration toward aggressive, chaotic sounds and synths, further and further away from the banjo and the endearingly impossible 50 States Project. Those of us who hoped for a breathy acoustic undressing of Oregon or West Virginia can now officially go home disappointed, and Stevens knows it—it’s a happy tradition, after all, for folk artists to go electric and get flak for it—but it’s far from clear from this new album exactly where he wants to go instead.

Adz sounds remarkably raw considering how much tinkering must have gone into it, with an abrasive texture and a stubborn refusal to sound pretty. Persistent flutes are a returning fixture from Illinois, as is Stevens’ wicked ability to write naturally in 7/4, and that’s about it. The subject matter of Adz (insanity, the Apocalypse, and love, among other things) is plenty fascinating, but it’s taken Stevens away from songwriting as such and into the darker waters of synthetic soundscapes. This movement is clearly key to his development, but it plays away from his skills as an orchestrator and wordsmith; the lyrics on Adz are more confessional and less sophisticated than they’ve ever been, even a little cringeworthy at times.

It’s an uneven album at best, but Adz’s best moments feel authentic and powerful even when they lack coherence: ‘Vesuvius’, a meditation on vertigo, is as inspiring in its way as anything on Seven Swans; ‘Futile Devices’ is lovely despite some lyrical missteps; the title track ‘Age of Adz’ earns some truly striking moments from Stevens’ newfound electronic sound; ‘I Walked’ and ‘Too Much’ are great fun after a few listens to get you into the rhythm of the ‘80s dance party that Stevens’ brain appears to be throwing for itself. Most tracks are at least interesting, for better or for worse, as Stevens takes stabs at finding his footing as a post-folk musician.

Adz is not Stevens’ best work, but he’s in the enviable position where it doesn’t have to be. His trajectory and talent suggest that this album will prove to be the birth pains of a separate, re-inventive stage of his career. And on the bright side, it looks like you’ll never have to listen to a Delaware EP after all.

Sufjan Stevens – Vesuvius
Sufjan Stevens – I Walked

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— , November 22, 2010    Comments Off on Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
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