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‘The Ascension’ is some solid Sufjan Stevens

| Monday, September 28, 2020

Liya Blitzer | The Observer

In the promotional blitz leading to the release of “The Ascension,” the eighth studio album from the prince of sad boi hours, Sufjan Stevens, much has been said about the singer-songwriter’s shame toward the current state of our country. Of course, such discourse isn’t without warrant; on the final song of the album, “America,” Stevens pleads with an unknown entity — “Don’t do to me what you did to America!” 

This criticism is especially interesting in the context of the indie darling’s discography. With albums like “Michigan” and “Illinois,” Stevens canonized the American Midwest with folk-tinged nostalgia, conjuring up images of sprawling plains, rolling hills and a land of possibility. But he dismissed his “50 States Project” as a promotional gimmick a decade ago, and in “America,” he might as well be putting the nail in the coffin. It’s the highlight of the record — an evocative song that seeks to reconcile the American Dream with our collective anxiety for the future of this country. 

But “The Ascension” is about more than just “America.” Many of the songs carry platitudinous titles like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Run Away With Me” and the rest are more than abstract enough to extrapolate an American metaphor if you want to. Ultimately, this is a Sufjan Stevens album, and his normal obsessions with love, death and religion are as potent as ever. It’s a solid addition to his staggering oeuvre, albeit one that might get lost in your Spotify shuffle. 

I’ve only ever reviewed movies for Scene, so this is, like, a super vulnerable moment for me (humble emoji). But when it comes to music, I consider myself a capital “C” connoisseur of “Sadjan Stevens,” and in listening to this record I was reminded that there are two kinds of Sufjan Stevens stans. In one corner are the purists, those who relish in the indie folk whispers and soft banjo twangs of something like “Carrie & Lowell.” In the other are the rebels, who bang their heads to the lush, techno symphonies and dynamic, emotional heights of an album like “The Age of Adz.” Of course, you’re allowed to be both — I consider myself to be — but most are a little more of one than the other.

Unfortunately for “The Ascension,” whose blips and bloops are like a mellow “Age of Adz” or a Stevens-centric “Planetarium,” I am a purist. I really appreciated this album; its textured instrumentation and sonic consistency are a marvel. But I didn’t love listening to it. 

It starts off strong with “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” an escalating track that does justice to the name of the record. Subsequent songs are solid too; “Video Game” and “Lamentations” play with Stevens’ sound in compelling and unique ways. But the deeper you get into the 15-track, 80-minute run time of “The Ascension,” the more the bottom starts to fall out from under you. “Die Happy” repeats the same lyric, “I want to die happy,” for nearly six minutes, while “Gilgamesh,” “Death Star” and “Goodbye To All That” start to blend together about three-quarters in. Luckily, tracks like “Ativan” and “Landslide” punctuate the drag with absorbing harmonies and, in the case of “Ativan,” unexpected lyrics (“I sh*t my pants and wet the bed,” Sufjan sings. Keep that to yourself, bro.)

On the penultimate and title track, “The Ascension,” the swaying, beautiful instrumentation betrays the lyrics. “I thought I could change the world around me,” Sufjan all but sobs. But in the song’s final moments, Stevens makes peace — “[I]t strengthens me to know at last,” he sings, “I did it all with exultation.”

“The Ascension” is slow, sparse and sad. Tired and hopeless, it’s not an album you’ll be keen to revisit, or even one you might remember next to giants like “Carrie & Lowell” or “Age of Adz.” 

But it’s a starry constellation of a record, and in its final moments it delivers on its promise. “I did it all with adoration,” he reaffirms. America is hurting, and Sufjan Stevens doesn’t know how to heal it. But damn, did he try, and in so doing, he ascends.

Album: “The Ascension”

Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Favorite Songs: “America,” “The Ascension,” “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse”

If you like: LCD Soundsystem, Grimes

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5

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About Aidan O'Malley

Aidan watches movies. Lots and lots of movies.

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