Sufjan Stevens Is More Captivating Than Comforting On ‘The Ascension’

In April of 2016, Sufjan Stevens made his Coachella debut. It came more than a decade after he recorded his lone inescapable hit song, “Chicago,” and two decades into a music career. The performance, which was set to kick off a massive festival run that would last that entire year, was ostensibly in support of his most recent album at that point, the delicate, pristine, and devastating Carrie & Lowell, an intimate reflection on his own childhood and complicated relationship with his family. Spare and solemn, its aesthetic couldn’t be more removed from Coachella’s maximalism, but Sufjan would hardly be the first musician to bring soft, nuanced sad-jams to the polo fields, following in a tradition that’s included everyone from Leonard Cohen to Fleet Foxes.

But then, on the Outdoor Theatre stage after dark, Stevens did something few expected. Sporting the elaborate angel wings and banjo that typifies much of his folkier work, he opened with the title track from his Christian-leaning 2004 album Seven Swans, concluding the dramatic tune by smashing said banjo into smithereens. From there, Stevens incorporated costume changes, neon lights, glow-in-the-dark aesthetics, and his glitchiest, most exuberant compositions into an unforgettable set. Only one song from Carrie & Lowell featured, but you know damn well his 25-minute Age Of Adz showstopper “Impossible Soul” occupied a solid third of the overall performance time. It wasn’t the evening that Stevens’ fans might have expected, but knowing the environment, the stakes, and his own varied history, he opted to deliver what was right for this particular moment, offering up a career-spanning set that showed he’s as comfortable performing with choreographed dancers as he is with orchestral arrangements.

This was not the first time Stevens has made it a point to underscore the breadth of his creative interests. The festival set wasn’t too far off from his colorful 2010 tour supporting Adz, and he’s long shown an aptitude for subverting expectations of his gentle, whispery work in collaborative projects like Planetarium with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister and The BQE. On his latest proper LP and the direct follow-up to Carrie & Lowell, The Ascension, he’s once again taking a creative left turn, one that’s not unprecedented to him (Adz is an obvious point of comparison) and one that is distinctly appropriate for the hellfire of times it is being released into. The Ascension is not Sufjan Stevens playing to his strengths necessarily, but showing once again that he is a definitively playful artist that is never satisfied evolving incrementally and takes the greater moment into account

Of course, The Ascension is by no means light thematically. Stevens introduced the album in promotional materials by saying, “My objective for this album was simple: Interrogate the world around you. Question anything that doesn’t hold water. Exterminate all bullshit. Be part of the solution or get out of the way.” And it’s in this “editorial pop album” — his words — that some of the grace of Sufjan is lost. After the year that many of us have had, a rallying of the troops feels particularly exhausting, much like the endless calls to vote feel to those taking action directly to the streets. That’s not to say The Ascension will always sound as heavy-handed as it does roughly a month before the election and half-a-year into a pandemic — look no further than it’s sonic sister The Age Of Adz as a record from Stevens that resonates more than it did at the time — but at this precise stop on the calendar, the value of Stevens is less tied to his philosophy and more to the communal emotional outpouring of which he’s capable.

So while The Ascension might be a disappointment on that emotional level, Stevens delivers in many other departments. Created mostly by himself with drum machines and synthesizers and recorded on a computer, the album sounds more solitary than he ever has before — and that’s saying a lot for someone with an extensive solo acoustic discography. But where Sufjan has always felt like he is in direct conversation to the individual listener, The Ascension is a much grander statement, set to a canvas of Radiohead-esque heady experiments and Depeche Mode pop-industrial soundscapes. Even at its most fully-realized — the slow-building mantra-fied “Die Happy,” the massively unhinged opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” — Stevens always sounds like he’s speaking to the masses, creating something utilitarian at the risk of alienating those that flock to him for personal, calming communion. And this means when he offers up the one-note “Run Away With Me” or the radio-ready “Video Game,” Stevens has never felt so surface-level.

But while The Ascension certainly has its flaws, coming from one of the premier musical geniuses of our time, the album also has moments of inspiration seemingly touched by the hand of god himself. The record’s back half picks up dramatically, with the sprawling stretch of “Ativan” (complete with Silence Of The Lambs references), “Ursa Major,” “Landslide,” and “Gilgamesh” finally transport the listener fully into Sufjan’s world. “Ativan” in particular showcases Stevens’ vocal vulnerability, with his voice bending and reaching its upper limits until the tune devolves fully into noisy rubble. This returns when he belts out “landslide” on the song of the same name, with the artist seeming to realize that a house-of-cards composition is far more interesting and inviting than an impenetrable fortress.

And the album’s greatest highlights arrive near the end. The gothy lurch of “Death Star” is a less convincing version of St. Vincent’s Masseduction, but it’s all misdirection once the warmth of “Goodbye To All That” explores the reciprocal of the same territory. It’s in this moment that Stevens is most sure of himself, able to cast his familiar melodic structure in gold. Singles “Sugar” and “America” also arrive at the end, universes unto themselves that are so all-encompassing, they risk eclipsing the journey that brought the listener to them. And then there’s my personal favorite, the glorious title track, which is sole song on the album that would be most comfortable on any of his previous releases. That’s not to say it doesn’t fit into the adventurous soundscape of this album, but much of Stevens’ best career work feels unstuck in time and unobligated to its current musical climate. It’s a slow-burn and a gut-punch at once, familiar and unique, and possibly the most in tune with the world that the album descends on: “I thought I could change the world around me / I thought I could change the world for best,” he sings, before gaining strength in the realization things are far more complicated than the best of intentions can solve.

The Ascension grapples with the world in the same way that most of us are: in our room, alone, detached from our usual outlets but looking to strengthen bonds through this shared experience. But ultimately its usefulness is distinct from the intentions that it was created. Like that Coachella performance, Stevens typically balances what interests him and what makes sense for the moment, and The Ascension follows this roadmap to varying success. The album won’t likely empower you to surviving some of the darkest moments in recent history, but gives a snapshot of how one of our most beloved figures is processing. And like his last adventurous solo album, The Age Of Adz, this album leaves the impression that its majesty might grow in time, once freed from the turbulence of 2020. Personally, I can’t wait.

The Ascension is out now via Asthmatic Kitty. Get it here.