Sufjan Stevens The Age of Adz(Asthmatic Kitty Records) Buy it from Insound
I don’t know how it’s going to play with the young folks, but to these old ears, Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz is an exhausting listen. At about 33 minutes in, just when most albums from the 60’s would be wrapping up, Stevens is just getting started. After about 45 minutes, even though I liked a lot of what I heard, I couldn’t wait for it to end. He seems to have taken an unfortunate page from the Animal Collective playbook and subjected his minimalist material to maximalist arrangements. Whoever gave Sufjan the keys to the laptop should be taken out and flogged. Nothing against electronic music, though I confess I mostly hate it, but this is programming run amok.
Oh how deceptively this album begins! Futile Devices is sheer bliss, picking up right where the triumph that was Illinoise left off. For a while there you feel ready to settle in for the soothing sounds of Sufjan. But then all hell breaks loose. The material stays strong, with Too Much, but unfortunately the title says it all. There is just too much going on here, leaving us grasping for beauty under a cacophony of babbles and beeps. This might have worked as a temporary outpouring of hysteria, but sadly it’s the template for the rest of the record, save for a tiny respite at the very end. Just like Thom Yorke tried to escape himself on Kid A by losing his voice in a digital haze, here Stevens buries himself and his musical fragments, for that is what he writes, under a sea of oppressive twaddle. But Kid A worked because Radiohead stripped everything down to its most basic elements and Yorke’s lonely voice sounded appropriately lonely, no matter what they did to it. Stevens just piled on the layers, presumably to impart some intoxicating effect, which it probably will in auditory systems less sensitive than mine. I’m guessing that many young inhabitants of Indieworld require such over-stimulation as evidenced by the success of bands like Animal Collective, who also lay it on too thick.
And once again I’m back in the unenviable position of complaining about a record, like I did with Panda Bear, that everyone else seems destined to love. But I said it then and I’ll say it again – there’s a lot of wonderful music hiding in here somewhere, but the artist is holding us at arms length, and I believe in this case it represents a tactical failure, as well as an artistic one. I don’t like to sit back and suggest what an artist should have done – what do I know about it? I’m just the critic – but I can’t help thinking that applying a different strategy to these songs, perhaps a simpler one, acoustic, electronic or otherwise, would have been a better way to go. Not that this album is filled with hidden treasures. As usual in today’s “everything I do is worthwhile by definition since I did it” age, an editor of brutal honesty is sorely lacking. The second half of this album is simply a drag, where the repeated fragments become less compelling by the second. This is when the migraine you’ve been brewing really starts to gain momentum. By the time you reach the 25 minute, that’s right, you heard me, 25 minute closer, Impossible Soul, with chanting vocoders and abusive Autotuning that would make Satan proud, you really have to wonder why no one around Stevens forcibly stopped him. The quiet closing minutes of this epic train wreck are such a breath of fresh air that you are left wondering what might have been, just as the opening minutes made you excited for what was to come.
Listen, a lot of people are going to tell you what a beautiful album this is, full of experimentation and wonder. If you happen to be near a custard pie when they say this, don’t hesitate to throw it in their face. Sure there’s some nice stuff here and no one ever said Stevens lacked ideas. But I’m telling you that despite this, The Age of Adz is a major misfire from an artist of uncommon depth and talent.12 October, 2010 - 19:43 — Alan Shulman