Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CD Review: Sufjan Stevens

Here's a CD review I wrote on StuffToListenTo back on October 18:
This review was supposed to be run in either today's or Thursday's issue of the Maine Campus, but due to a communication error, another writer and myself ended up writing about the same album.  He had called the album before I did, so he got the slot (feel free to read Jay Grant's review here).
I figured I should kill at least one bird with this stone, so here is the review that I wrote.
CD Review: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
"Indie songwriter's electro-art-rock experiment a success"
NPR streamed the album in its entirety for almost a month before its October 12 release, so this CD may already be old news to faithful fans of the Detroit native, but to non-fans, "The Age of Adz" - pronounced "odds" - is a breath of fresh, innovative air that will more than likely remove the "non" from "non-fans."
The album opener "Futile Devices," a hypnotic folk number along the lines of Iron and Wine, features soft guitar pickings and Sufjan Stevens' soothing voice accented by a light piano, which is not at all indicative of the rest of the album.  This lovely and accessible song may be intended to ease the listener into the record, as 84 minutes is a lot to commit to an album that carries doubt.
With the first synthesized-clogged-toilet sound - not bad like it sounds - of the second track "Too Much," the Flaming Lips-ish electronic psychedelia grabs the rest of the record by the horns and muscles it into submission with synthesized twinkles, orchestral arrangements and all sorts of studio trickery.
Following the exciting and big climax of the previous song, the title track opens with what seems to be the score from a dramatic scene of a classic Disney cartoon remixed by Daft Punk.  Stevens continues the uncertain lyrical themes present throughout the album, either singing about a lost love, a self-realization or a newfound faith in God, with lines like, "Well I have known you for just a little while, but I feel I've known you, I feel I've seen you, when the Earth was split in fives."
Many twists and turns are taken from here, and more musical ideas are explored.  "I Want To Be Well" sees Stevens doubting the beauty of the world as he says, "Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, illness is watching, waiting its turn." The song's last three minutes are an urgent and beautiful crescendo into frustration, as Stevens calls out, "I'm not f*cking around, I'm not f*cking around," with quick drums and background harmonies only adding to the intense climax.
A near-third of "The Age of Adz" occurs in the album closer, the 25-minute "Impossible Soul."  It is certainly a long haul, clocking in at slightly longer than most sitcoms, but like the TV shows, the song shifts moods and tempos, never turning stale.  Like the long-winded Pink Floyd suites of yore, "Impossible Soul" makes use of as many instruments, tones and sounds as possible, while avoiding sounding like a car crash.
The first 10 minutes of this robo-space-rock symphony have Stevens on his knees, begging his object of affection for love, singing, "But all I want is the perfect love, though I know it's small, I want love for us all, and all I couldn't sing, I would say it all my life to you, if I could get you at all."  Persistent drums and chanting conjure thoughts of the chorus of "Kids" by MGMT, as Stevens recites, "It's a long life, better pinch yourself, put your faith together, better get it right."
Surprisingly, after this extensive, interesting and fantastical ride, the last three minutes hearken back to the album opener, creating graceful, organic bookends to the wild, schizophrenic experiment sandwiched in the middle.
The indie pop of Stevens' hit 2005 song "Chicago" has no home on this disc, and that's fine - fans should be delighted to hear such a beautiful pushing of the boundaries.  With all the sonic subtleties and nuances, this boundary-pushing is much more effectively experienced through a pair of quality headphones, so no detail goes unnoticed and the true, intended feel can be fully received.
Arguably the most interesting release of 2010 thus far, "The Age of Adz" is a record that warrants multiple listenings, and will be a mainstay in many indie music collections and a topper of numerous best-of-the-year lists.
(rating out of 5)
  1. Futile Devices (2:13)
  2. Too Much (6:45)
  3. Age of Adz (8:01)
  4. I Walked (5:02)
  5. Now That I'm Older (4:57)
  6. Get Real Get Right (5:12)
  7. Bad Communication (2:26)
  8. Vesuvius (5:28)
  9. All for Myself (2:57)
  10. I Want To Be Well (6:28)
  11. Impossible Soul (25:34)
Album Sampler:
(Sufjan Stevens - I Want To Be Well)

What I'm Listening To: Interpol - Evil

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