Sufjan Steven’s ‘The Ascension’ merges the electronic with the lyrical

October 9, 2020

When Sufjan Stevens released the single “America” back in July, I was not impressed. At 12 minutes, it was asking a lot. The song was certainly not helped by the chorus, which is repetitive and obvious, and I could not shake the sense that I had heard it before. When it comes to fourth of July listens, “America” simply did not compete with the titular “Fourth of July” from “Carrie and Lowell.” I listened to the other singles half-heartedly as they came out, and when “The Ascension” finally released on Sept. 25, I barely noted it. Fortunately, my lack of faith was unwarranted. “The Ascension” is an aggressive electronic landscape rife with mellow pits. It is weird, too. Sonically weird, thematically weird, Sufjan weird. It isn’t hard to get lost in this album, but it takes time to fall in love with it.

It is clear that the ideas of “Aporia,” Sufjan’s lyricless ambient project released in March, weighed heavily on the artist’s mind while working on “The Ascension.” Deep, synthetic bass reverberates across the album, and some of the other sounds are frankly unearthly. The direct storytelling present in some of Sufjan’s previous works (think “Illinoise”) has been dulled in favor of tone and chorus. Two electronic albums in one year might be too much for some, but the work is no less rich than anything that came before it.

This album is a poppy album, but it is poppy in a way that only Sufjan could do pop. The constant declaration of “I want to love you!” in the song Ursa Major is underscored by these absurd, pinging instruments and vocalizations that reappear in various forms throughout the album. On a scale from “Age of Adz” to “Carrie and Lowell,” Sufjan’s latest work draws musically from the former without completely dropping the lyrical quality of the latter. To be frank, this album feels like something new for the artist—a feat of self-innovation that Sufjan is a master of repeating.

Sufjan lets the choruses rip in this album. “Die Happy” consists of only four unique words, the phrase “I wanna die happy” repeated over 12 times. Despite this, the song builds from a slow piano melancholy to a full swing of ambient, electronic mayhem. What begins as a question concludes as an ardent statement of desire. “Death Star” navigates a similarly restrictive lyrical space. The four or so stanzas are lyrically the same with a few choice line alterations with each iteration. These tracks are jarring at first, but the artist’s penchant for sprawling, allegorical narratives does not detract from his ability to produce singles of a smaller scope. The songs are refreshing even at their most repetitive.

I don’t mean to suggest by these new developments that Sufjan’s old storytelling flair is dead and gone. On the contrary, the lyrics, while possibly diminished in quantity, have lost none of their playfulness. “Landslide,” which might just be my favorite track on the album, exemplifies Sufjan’s power to draw from a seemingly bottomless reserve of stories and references. It is hard not to fall in love with Sufjan at his most flirtatious, which of course means referencing ancient Chinese philosophers: “At the risk of sounding like a Confucian, I saw your body and I saw what I liked.” The perfect parity of line enders like “anaphylaxis” and “phantom synapsis” is nothing short of delicious, even as the listener has no idea what he is talking about.

Therein lies the beauty of this album and many of Sufjan’s others: tone usurps lyrics in the creation of meaningful music. Christian allegories certainly abound in this work, but you do not need to be intimately familiar with Christ’s ascension into heaven to realize that Sufjan is thinking about an ascension of his own. His desire to change the world clashes with a growing mortality. There is even a dash of unlikely hubris, which is to be expected of an album modeled on Christ’s heavenly moment. Aggressive, political and religiously charged tracks like “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” and “Video Game” slam against slower tracks like “Lamentations” and “Tell Me You Love Me.” The album starts high, dips low and menacing, and surges again for a little while. It dances between desperate urgency and uncertain depression, a perfect election year vibe for these plagued times. The track “America,” which I used to dislike, is actually a perfect clincher to the adventure. It is a nearly soothing, rhythmic polemic to conclude the emotional struggle of trying to rise above.

While “Aporia” was an awesome creative endeavor, “The Ascension” feels like a true sequel to the ever personal “Carrie and Lowell.” Fans of Sufjan’s electronic side, however, are given more than enough sonic material to chew on while lovers of the vocals can once again lavish in that trademark Sufjan storytelling. 

This album marks an ambitious merger of the two sides of the artist that, until now, haven’t shared too much space on a single album. Longtime fans might be put off at first, albeit to a lesser extent than with “Aporia,” but the project is worth sticking with. The best of the tracks will not leave your skull. If the slowness of Carrie and Lowell or his previous lyrical works were off-putting to you, then “The Ascension” might be a welcome change of pace, though it is not without its own moors. Regardless, I am glad to see the artist continue to evolve, maintaining a recognizable style without completely gluing himself to a “Sufjan” brand. 

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