Saturday, October 10, 2020

Sufjan Stevens - Ascension REVIEW

Sufjan Stevens has been a favourite of mine since 2015. His album, Carrie & Lowell, was an exploration into emotions we all undoubtedly never wish to feel; Stevens' ability to musically explain his feeling of loss is crafted so elegantly in this album. His latest album, The Ascension, is the first album in five years, since the release of Carrie & Lowell, where Stevens is the sole credited artist. Through those interim years, his musical style has been restructured and redefined; his new style is almost unrecognisable from his 2015 instalment.

Stevens wrote the March 2020 instrumental album, Aporia, with his business-partner/step-father, Lowell Brams. With influences from films like Blade Runner and Hereditary, Aporia was a significant step away from the sound of Sufjan Stevens established in Carrie & Lowell. Similar to the sound of 2020's first album, Aporia, The Ascension offers us an album of soundtrack-isms with overlayed lyrics, a seemingly obvious next-step into the world of electropop for Stevens...

Personally, Carrie & Lowell represents the style I have always connected with Sufjan Stevens and listening to The Ascension was a bit of a shock to me. Not that Aporia didn't prepare me for this eventuality, but that connection I created with his ethereal, airy and emotional style of music felt like a distant past when I started this listen.

The Ascension, in my opinion, is a difficult album to draw a definitive conclusion of how I feel towards it. On the one hand, Stevens' use of synthetic sound is executed mostly well and, in some songs, he has managed to recreate his signature ethereal sound electronically. However, the more I have deliberated it, the shortcomings do outweigh the positives. 

Despite this, I shall start with the positives. Right throughout, I was stuck thinking of what other groups this new electronic sound had a likeness too. One I got straight away was Radiohead (At least their later, more experimental sound), this was most evident in Stevens' songs: "Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse" and "Lamentations". I feel this 'experimental sound' is hard to get right and it is a style that I think Radiohead did well; now Sufjan Stevens has proved he can do 'experimental' as well, albeit a bit more mixed. The other band I didn't come to as I did with the Radiohead comparison, the name was on the tip of my tongue until the end of the album. It wasn't until I listened to "Video Games" and "Run Away With Me" that I realised I was visualising Massive Attack. By successfully melding the 'Massive Attack-esque' swelling synth and underlying semi-repetitive percussion patterns with his multi-tonal vocal style, Sufjan Stevens achieved a unique but recognisable sound that in most cases was enjoyable to listen.

Now to the negatives. Right off of the bat, I hate finding negatives in music from musicians I admire. I'd first like to mention The Ascension is a long album. At 80:30, it feels like an age to get through. The point is not that the album is too long because there are plenty of albums that I hold in high regard that go well over one hour, it is that The Ascension could have been more effective if it were half of the time and instead, possibly, released in two-parts. Stevens noted for Aporia that he and Brams recorded that album through jamming sessions, hence the twenty-one song tracklisting. A fundamental difference between Aporia and The Ascension is the use of, what I am calling, soundtrack-isms. Aporia works at the length it is because of the association to film scoring. The Ascension seems like a missed attempt to meld the soundtrack and the studio album - which, if executed correctly, is a fascinating notion. Sadly, the fundamental flaw in Stevens' attempt is the over-saturation of the aforementioned Massive Attack/late-Radiohead love child sound. Experimental music is good, and it is a healthy process for any working musician to go through, but limits and boundaries are there for a reason. The Beatles still get stick for 'Revolution 9'... fifty-two years later. 

Despite my rather tenacious grievances with this album, there are a few songs in this album that stand out and represent Stevens' new musical approach. These songs being: "Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse", Stevens' light vocals complement the attacking synth melody and rhythm; "Run Away With Me", this song still offers us a certain lyrical and vocal sadness, akin to Carrie & Lowell; "Ativan", with a certain space-age quality to it, this song is a lot more subdued than other entries to this album; "Sugar", initially released as a single, this song is the best representation of how 'the soundtrack' and 'the studio album' can be mixed. If I had control of this album's tracklisting, this album would have comprised of about seven to eight songs, including those mentioned above.

To conclude. If you enjoy heavy, sometimes attacking, synthetic sound, this album will be a fantastic addition to your collection. Unfortunately, I didn't much take to the surprising uproot from his past style and sound. However, I can also understand how people could enjoy this album as it does hold a certain level of musical complexity and dynamism that some experimenting artists sometimes struggle to attain.

- Charlie Cowburn


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