Sufjan Stevens’ new album reinvents his aesthetic as he confronts the psychic terror of contemporary America. By Shaad D’Souza.
Sufjan Stevens lives by a mantra: “Keep it moving, keep it real, keep it true.” Over the course of his two-decade-plus career as a songwriter and producer, Stevens has stuck to this admirably.
He cycles through styles and aesthetics, paying no attention to the progression within his own oeuvre, adopting whatever mood best services his current record. He deployed lush, baroque arrangements to convey the vast expanses and complex histories of the American Midwest on the early 2000s classics Michigan and Illinois; unadorned guitar and vocals mirrored the intimacy of communion with God on Seven Swans; glitching electronics provided metaphor for a diseased body on The Age of Adz; and so on. This lack of a traceable aesthetic arc meant that for many years Stevens remained a cult curio, a successful indie artist who, for better or for worse, resisted profound mainstream success.
That changed significantly with the release of 2015’s delicate folk opus Carrie & Lowell. Raw and open, the record reinvigorated Stevens’ status as an indie hero, drawing him a legion of new, younger fans who celebrated his career through a proliferation of ultra-niche memes and jokes.
While most musicians would relish this kind of renewed, loyal attention, Stevens bristles. The Ascension, his 2020 follow-up to Carrie & Lowell, is a breaking down and rebuilding of his art, a self-described protest album that defies the few conventions he established on past records. An 80-minute epic, The Ascension corrupts and darkens the chaotic electronic textures of his two most comparable records, The Age of Adz and Enjoy Your Rabbit, marking Stevens’ disillusionment with the two constants of his music to date: America and his Christian faith.
Carrie & Lowell privileged a careful, finely wrought confessional, but The Ascension reduces sentiment to its barest bones, replacing embroidery with slogans and catchphrases. Many iconic photos of Stevens depict him wearing massive angel wings; his newest press shots find him wearing a hoodie emblazoned with a huge adidas logo. From its generic, gummy song titles (“Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse”, “Run Away with Me”, “America”) to its sanitised, ’90s-indebted sound – which draws from the industrial crunch of Nine Inch Nails as much as it does Moby’s Balearic pop and Ray of Light-era Madonna – The Ascension is an unnerving, strange record, profoundly aware of the fact that, to properly critique a rotten America, you have to use its own excessive, blunt-force vernacular.
The most compelling songs on The Ascension use Stevens’ own life as proxy for the ills of the world around him. On the sprightly single “Video Game” he rejects individualism, a founding pillar of American capitalism. “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus,” he sings, “… I don’t wanna be the centre of the universe.” Stevens is pushing back on the cult of personality that emerged around his own career circa Carrie & Lowell – a phenomenon that manifests at every level of American society, not least in the current era’s conflation of political office with celebrity. On “Tell Me You Love Me,” he doubles down: “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything.” And on the album’s penultimate song and title track, that loss of faith is rendered chillingly atop little more than quiet synthesiser:
I thought I could change the world around me
I thought I could change the world for best
I thought I was called in convocation
I thought I was sanctified and blessed
For a long time, Stevens – a liberal, devoutly Christian man – embodied an American dream of tolerance, compassion and self-made success. In order to question the nature of America and Christianity, he has had to first look inwards and reconsider the structures of idealism and iconography that have shaped his life. In interviews, Stevens has expressed how disillusioned he has become with the entrenched, diseased structures of America, and here you can hear his vitriol, his new cynicism. He describes The Ascension as “bossy and bitchy”, but it is much, much less fun than that implies. This is a more difficult listen than even the tortured Carrie & Lowell; although the lyrics are blockier, less ornate than on past records, this record is heavy with psychic terror, defined by squalling synthesisers and drum machines.
In an interview with the music magazine The Fader, Stevens said that his intention with The Ascension was not to provide furious polemic, but to consider how one might fix America on a metaphysical level – “more spiritually ... even existentially”. The sentiment reminds me of former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who believed that Donald Trump was confounding America with a “dark psychic force” and who strongly advocated “harnessing love for political purposes” in order to drive out hate.
Like Williamson’s “return to love”, Stevens counters his soothsaying on The Ascension with some of his sweetest, most sweeping love songs ever. When, on “Tell Me You Love Me”, he confesses his loss of faith, the solution follows quickly: “Tell me you love me anyway.” While his belief in America may be lost, Stevens is looking to bigger, more powerful forces on The Ascension, powers that can withstand the most profound losses of faith. The result is classic Stevens: moving, real and true.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Keeping it real".
During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.