It’s been five years since the very personal Carrie and Lowell was released. After the experimental dabbling on Age of Adz, this record saw Sufjan Stevens return to the tender, fragile compositions that saw him make his mark in the rising lo-fi Americana genre that came to prominence during the early noughties. The direction the Michigan musician was going to take next therefore was always going to be an unpredictable one.
It transpires that Stevens’ intentions were two-fold; there has always been a cognitive element to his records and a deep-dive is likely to reveal a smorgasbord of interpretations on many of them. It’s not as though the last five years have been bereft of suitable subject matter for the forty-five year old to sink his teeth into on The Ascension. We live in an era that demands that quick fix though. Our attention spans are often challenged and this record acknowledges this. The opening couple of tracks are ghostly affairs full of pulsing beats and choral harmonies that float amidst widescreen electronic landscapes that morph nightmarishly into something quite brutal at times. ‘Video Game’ is different. It’s the first time the record provides something you can tap your foot to and even sing along with, but the opening lines “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus… I don’t wanna play your video games” demonstrate a fatigue that offsets the more simple pop melodies.
‘Lamentations’ reinforces this approach but it’s a glitchy, unpredictable approach that challenges Stevens’ weary ethereal musings and begs the question: what kind of environment would a record like this be suitable for? Carrie and Lowell connected through a sense of compassion, understanding and a shared sadness but there’s a sense that this is such a personal, intense response to the world’s maladies that finding a connection becomes quite a draining experience.
There is certainly something quite cinematic going on here. ‘Ativan’ is a driving force of nature. A high-tempo rhythm laced with analogue anomalies surround clattering percussive elements amidst Stevens’ more conventional vocals enhance these dark waters. There is also an 80s electronic vibe that thrusts forwards at times and ‘Death Star’ appears to relish in its appropriation of all manner of cinematic and musical stimuli from this era. One is left with a nagging question throughout all of this though; is it actually enjoyable?
The last third of the record settles into more of a lo-fi groove, Stevens’ vocals become more striking, the narratives more accessible and the title track delights in its gentle incline towards some kind of clarity before the vastness of ‘America’ leaves us discombobulated by its more restrained musicality, providing a discord against the backdrop of visual flourishes that the song conjures up. Ultimately, it is this sense of disorientation that one is left with at the records conclusion. It may be that only repeated, deep-dive listens will actually reveal the vast complexities of this challenging record.