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Photo of Sufjan Stevens performing on stage during a tour for his Illinois album in 2005. // Photo courtesy of Erin Watson/Flickr.

Sufjan Stevens’ new album is subtly grand

By Karabee Batta, October 21 2020—

Sufjan Stevens’ magnum opus, The Ascension, comes after a five-year hiatus. Calling it his magnum opus is truly something because almost all of his work is ambitious and subtly grand. This work rivals all his previous and more. Stevens hasn’t been exactly quiet all this time. He contributed to the soundtrack of the 2017 coming of age hit Call Me by Your Name, collaborated other artists and in the process, received some Oscar nominations.

He reasserts what his previous work has already cemented — he is a man of multitudes, who conveys complex emotions with simplicity. In this album, he sings about love, spirituality, outer space and even America’s current political climate through cliché phrases like Die Happy, Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse and Tell Me You Love Me for track titles. Nothing about the tracks is cliché though.

“There’s such a proliferation of these phrases in our society and we shrug them off and find them meaningless,” he says in an interview with The Quietus, “but right now I’m desperate for some kind of platitude that tells me where to go, and how to go about my business in a way that’s healthy and sustainable. These phrases are all carried down throughout the generations because they get us through the day.”

These tracks feature more of a retro, hazy synthesizer sound and give off feelings of an impending doomsday. While it is extremely easy to sound pretentious while talking about a spiritual “ascension” and finding the light, Stevens has achieved mastery in this territory and he knows he thrives in it. He powers through the entire album with soothing melodies, even when he talks about heavy topics like the gloomy future awaiting humanity and death. That’s as “Sufjan-istic” as it gets.

The percussive electronic beats sound in the backdrop of deeper cynical lyrics is a refreshing change coming from the artist, where in the past his music has been more biblically inclined, and relatively more ebullient. This sonic shift actually suits the forlorn reality this year seems to be glitched in; so simply put, it works. Landslide and Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse are perfect examples of this.

His longest track on the album, America, features the line “don’t do to me what you did to America” in its chorus. Any other time in history, it might have sounded vague. But right now, when the global superpower is caught in the clutches of one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19  is battling systemic racism and what seems like a clownery of an election, the lyrics sound uncannily fitting and ominous. But it is exactly what it says on the cover. It’s an overt political statement where Stevens condemns all that he feels is wrong about his country. Cue:

“I have tasted of your blood / I have choked on the waters, I abated the flood / I am broken, I am beat”

This dark and melancholic album contains less allusions to Christianity in comparison to his previous works and many fans have wondered if his latest work is a breakup letter to God. But, it’s still one of Stevens’ most spiritual works. 

The Ascension (2020) album cover. // Produced by Asthmatic Kitty.

The syncopated slow burn of the songs takes a while to grow on you and that’s okay. The growing uneasiness and the calm that is delivered simultaneously as the songs progress are worth the wait. 

In Video Game he talks being your own person and snapping out of the limbo state people seem to be in — just following what others tell them to do. The best part of his music is that he doesn’t need fancy words and heavy phrases to tell you all this. The message resounds just as well, even when his lyrics might seem hackneyed and vapid out of context.

Death Star is my favourite track from the album, it gives the feeling of being blissful in an eternal freefall state of the mind and you grow into it very easily. 

Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, this album isn’t exactly the optimistic remedy one so desperately needs. Instead, it is a mellow reality check that tells you the future is messed up without a doubt, but never stops you from breezing through the present. The cynicism and misanthropy of the lyrics don’t necessarily make you resent the world but give the much-needed solace that you aren’t the only one feeling this way.

Must listen-to’s: America, Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse.

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