Music Reviews
The Ascension

Sufjan Stevens The Ascension

(Asthmatic Kitty) Rating - 8/10

Sufjan Stevens has a knack for, in the briefest of musical moments, opening up the skies and letting a glorious light shine through. Such moments of instantaneous transcendence are peppered throughout his varied discography––see the voice-cracking, heart-wrenching delivery of “oh my god” in 2005’s John Wayne Gacy, Jr. or the entrance of newly propulsive live drums in the outro of 2010’s I Want to Be Well, underscoring Stevens’ proclamation that he’s “not fucking around.”

The immediate comparison to draw from Stevens’ latest, The Ascension, is to the album I Want to Be Well calls home, The Age of Adz. It offered a whacked-out electronic departure from the baroque-folk character of Stevens’ breakout, Illinois, as The Ascension seems to from 2015’s quiet, gorgeous Carrie & Lowell. But here, Stevens doesn’t feel the need to defend himself; he trusts that, this time, we know he’s not fucking around, delivering a confident album that runs through with hooks and synthesized textures that reach sky-high and often get there.

Characteristically of the guy who still can’t escape questions of where the other forty-eight states in his “planned” fifty state cycle of albums have got to, The Ascension is big in all the ways that suggests. It’s long, clocking in at a firm eighty minutes. It’s cluttered, synth noise attacking drum noise—every permutation of Stevens’ infinitely-overdubbed voice fighting with the others to be the lead. It probably could have done with a couple of tracks getting cut. It screams at you with every song and every beat, and that it’s something that must be heard—leaping forth with fury from Carrie & Lowell’s fingerpicked serenity.

Stevens’ lyricism is direct, neither so literary as it was in the heyday of his fifteen-word song titles nor as plaintive and considerate as on Carrie & Lowell. Its lead single, America, rests on a plea that's desperate and recurring: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” He begs an unknown listener, screaming into the void. Stevens articulates similarly plain feelings with a similar repetition throughout the album, convincing himself and anyone out there that his desires might come to fruition. Die Happy consists of one line, repeated into oblivion: “I wanna die happy.” He’s uninterested in adornment, in couching his words and hiding from himself. In the stark faux pas confessional of Ativan, as he admits that “I shit my pants and wet the bed,” Stevens makes it perhaps (depending on your threshold for “gross”) too clear that he’s not going to hold back from anything he might want to share, an attitude that’s at least equally as plainly demonstrated in the album’s musical direction.

At its worst, which is still pretty good, The Ascension bobs along in a meandering sea of drum machine and synth pads, waiting for something to latch on to. It never takes long; Stevens has the ideas and they hit relentlessly, moving on and doubling over before you’ve had half a chance to process them. He’s working with disparate elements—from some of the direct pep of Video Game (surprisingly fun) to the beautiful atmosphere untouched by his solo catalog of the album’s title track (among others)—and it all fuses into a bizarrely cohesive behemoth of blips and crashes. Some of the best material on the album is the stuff that burns slow without falling into listlessness––the instrumental prologue to Sugar is mesmerizing, riding a crushed-up trip-hop drumbeat and a punctuating synth tag through to the first part of the track’s seven-and-a-half minutes and then providing a rock-solid base for the latter half. It's possibly the best hook-craft Stevens has ever put to tape.

The patented Sufjan Stevens moment of glory comes about a minute and a half into Landslide, a remarkable mid-album cut. The moody pad-work of the first verse cuts out, and with only a quick tag of a drum machine as a bridge, a truly gargantuan synth hits like a double-decker bus as Stevens intones: “There’s nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to hide.” This synth note, low and wide as it surrounds you from all sides, is the album’s thesis. There’s nowhere to run: The Ascension will track you down. Seconds later, as he allows his voice to break halfway through wailing the song’s title—and the force of the chorus gives way to a (very effective) skittery approximation of a guitar solo—The Ascension crystallizes. It means what it says, and it says that Stevens knows what he’s doing and that he’s happy to take us along for the ride.