Sufjan Stevens is a songwriter and musician for whom the word ‘ambitious’ does not seem grand enough. Completing his gargantuan 50 states project (a flippant commitment surely never intended to be followed through) would have required a work rate unprecedented in contemporary music.
Some critics have complained that he has drifted in the period since the much loved (Come On Feel The) Illinoise, during which he has released a boxed set of Christmas songs, an entire CD of music that failed to make the cut for …Illionoise and has composed a suite about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (perhaps this might have counted as his 50 states contribution for New York). This is hardly a lazy work rate – rather, it all points to a restless artist with little concern for fulfilling the expectations of audiences or critics.
The Age Of Adz (apparently pronounced ‘odds’), like the surprise album-length EP All Delighted People that preceded it, is sprawling and unwieldy. It occasionally showcases Stevens’ peerless imagination but also more often suffers from hyperactive over-engineering. Partially, Stevens has returned to the electronic forays first attempted on 2003’s Enjoy Your Rabbit. Back then, Stevens’ defiantly independent status and modest audience size allowed him to experiment with impunity. Seemingly, he will not now let commercial imperatives rein him in. The songs here are long, sometimes in odd time signatures and with intricate, gradually unfolding structures that can be difficult to navigate. This would not in itself be a bad thing if Stevens had not too often buried some superb ideas beneath a world of unnecessary, obfuscating clutter. His electronics tend to be intrusive chirrups, bleeps and whooshes that sometimes fail to enhance or support the basic themes or mood of his music.
Even the comparatively stripped down tracks (for example All For Myself) come with surprising instrumentation and burdensome choral arrangements. These wilful expansions often transform sweet, affecting songs into grandiose and portentous statements. Too Much comes with a saccharine rush generated by one of Stevens’ most infectious choruses but it is disguised by a whole world of noise and sound, much of it seemingly super-imposed over the song merely for the sake of it, rather than to achieve any particular effect. Songs that start promisingly (I Want To Be Well, Age Of Adz) expand to excess over six to eight minutes and some of his melodies seem anguished or obtuse. If these songs seem impenetrable, they are small fry compared with the 25 minute (yes, really) melodrama of Impossible Soul. Surprisingly, segments of this epic piece provide the album’s most tender and touching moments but this hardly warrants it being so absurdly long (and the vocoder section is definitely a major irritation).
The other major change here is Stevens’ move to more personal, confessional songwriting. Again, this ought not to be a significant problem. It would be unfair to expect Stevens to write historically or conceptually rooted material for an entire career. Unfortunately, however, his lyrics here seem prone to platitudes or alienating self-indulgence. The trick in writing vulnerable songs inspired by emotions is to make those very individual experiences into something universal. It’s a hard trick – and one which critics and audiences often underestimate. Admissions such as “I know I caused you trouble, I know I caused you pain”, however candid and honest, do not really suffice. At one point Stevens even apologises for being “self-effacing”, claiming he has been “consumed by selfish thoughts”. How much more devastatingly acute and moving Stevens has been when writing about other characters, people and situations.
Stevens undoubtedly remains a substantial talent – this is arguably as good a showcase of his madcap aspirations and multi-instrumental skill as anything else in his catalogue. He is not, however, a judicious editor. This is an extravagant and undisciplined album that is nearly impossible to digest. There is little breathing space in the music and Stevens’ tendency to squeeze in too many ideas is often maddening. Sometimes it is what is left out, rather than what is put in, that makes an album into a major statement. With The Age Of Adz, Stevens may simply be trying too hard.