There’s always a notable air of excitement when a new, song-based album by Sufjan Stevens is announced, but it’s not something he’s massively focused on of late. Earlier this year saw him release the instrumental suite Aporia, written with his stepfather Lowell Brams, and last year he wrote scores for film and ballet. While side projects like these and 2009’s The BQE have much to offer, his strength undoubtedly remains in writing emotion-heavy songs that connect powerfully with the listener.
The good news is that eighth album The Ascension contains several tracks that fall into this category. It’s important to state however that they’re all set in an electronic, and occasionally experimental, setting rather than the delicate, ‘classic, revered Sufjan sound’ found on the likes of 2015’s acclaimed Carrie & Lowell. On discovering that The Ascension has a largely electronic sound, the temptation is to draw parallels with his 2010 album The Age Of Adz but there shouldn’t be any comparison in this respect – The Ascension is a far superior and more ambitious album.
The accompanying notes talk about the album being influenced ideologically by “esoteric philosophies like theosophy, anthroposophy and Confucianism” and musically being guided by Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, and there’s certainly a lot to digest over the course of the 80 minutes. There’s also a focus on the problems of America as a nation and the feeling of society slipping into an increasingly troubling place. Amid all this, the most important point is that The Ascension features strong, defined songwriting (something that, looking back, The Age Of Adz lacked) coupled with a more integrated, considered approach to musical arrangements.
Opening track Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse sees him impart fragile, sensitive lyrics over an escalating and dense backdrop. It’s a solid start but better comes with the pretty and pristine Run Away With Me, which documents longing and desire in that special Sufjan way. It confirms how he’s at his most effective when his voice has less to compete with, and can deliver its message in relative isolation. The closer we can get to his voice, the closer we get to his heart and it’s the first of many moments here where the emotional payback is significant.
Carrie & Lowell might have seen him at his most vulnerable but there’s some similarly unprotected, exposed moments here, not least on Tell Me You Love Me where he sings of how “I feel myself unravelling… I feel the darkness on my back”. The way his voice rises in sync with the dramatic outgoing climax adds an additional power. Similar happens on the poignant, soul-baring Landslide. He sings how “you took my breath away, I took my time”, both lines feeling strangely relevant to his recent output, and it’s hard not to see how the already strong emotional bonds between Stevens and his fanbase won’t be further consolidated by moments like this.
Video Game and Die Happy might be two of the tracks that stand out from the first half of the album, but they aren’t necessarily the strongest. The former comes close to feeling a little simplistic and lightweight while the latter is rescued by the ricocheting beats and Kraftwerk-like synths that move in towards the end. Yet, they fit neatly into the soundworld Stevens has constructed here. Many tracks feel like they’ve been carved from ice and have a hint of Vespertine-era Björk to them, while a mild Boards Of Canada feel infiltrates others. Elsewhere, clipped electronics, choral hints and low-level glitchiness combine appealingly on tracks like Lamentations and Gilgamesh.
Ursa Major offers more in the way of musical svelteness and unguarded lyricism (there’s a real candidness to the way in which he declares “I wanna love you” here) while the title track is hands-down stunning, with all defences lowered as he delivers a series of straight-to-camera heartfelt confessions and observations. A beautiful, moving depth runs right through the song, but especially to lines like “I thought I could change the world around me, I thought I could change the world for best”. It’s one of the best songs he’s written and tears will likely be widely shed to it. The frosted, shimmering opus of America closes the album, reasserting some of the overriding socio-political messages and proving how well he has reconciled an experimental approach with targeted, affecting lyrics. He might get judged against his past more than most but The Ascension sees him lay down new paths while very much corroborating his special, loved status.