Sufjan Stevens has remained busy since he dropped Carrie & Lowell, so it’s easy to forget how long it’s been since his last proper full-length album. He’s spent the past five years collaborating on baroque space odysseys and classical piano ballet scores, but his EP Love Yourself / With My Whole Heart and his Oscar-nominated contributions to 2017 film “Call My By Your Name” turned the most heads. The latter might’ve had fans hopeful for his return to his indie folk roots, while the former favored a synthetic avenue.
Sufjan Stevens traverses that avenue in full on The Ascension, which does more than subvert musical expectations. This album sees the American Dream Stevens presented with 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois come crashing down with critical depth and thoughtful musicianship.
It’s very much in Stevens’ character to tease The Ascension with 12-minute closing track “America.” Part choral piece, part Bian Eno, this cut furthers his ongoing quest to befuddle those who jumped on the Carrie & Lowell bandwagon. It also provides a striking appraisal of a United States in the throes of Trump’s administration, illustrating his disillusionment like St. John’s “Dark Night of the Soul:” “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.”
The refrain “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” haunts the song’s extended instrumental outro like a mournful spector through its cathartic crescendos and hypnotic loops. Indeed, the droning dark ambient at the last moments embodies the emptiness many have felt in the leadup to the 2020 election, which seems to become darker and more foreboding every day.
This more confrontational narrative carries onto single “Video Game:” “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus… In a way I wanna be my own believer.” The song comes off as a rebuke to those who try to box him in as a bridge between Christianity and hipsters—though you wouldn’t know it through the chiming synths and light-weight beat.
Indeed, Stevens’ penchant for celestial euphonics has not lessened within new instrumentation and a more austere outlook. “Sugar” shows how Stevens can re-contextualize his folk songwriting chops within keyboard wormholes. His stream of angelic melody flows freely through detailed beats and multilayered synthscapes, to a point where the two extremes meld together.
Considering that Stevens’ connection to weird techno stretches back to his second record, and that his last release was an exercise in pure ambiance, it’s no surprise to find opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” coming together so naturally. There’s an undeniably nostalgic quality to the synth tones, but the complex half-time beat and mesmerizing vocal motifs come straight out of another dimension. His understanding of arrangement and dynamics gives these songs room for thematic depth. Cuts like “Run Away With Me” sport more accessibility. He even makes a point to credit his synthesizers by name, showing how he takes these instruments just as seriously as his banjo.
A song called “Lamentations” shouldn’t evoke a dance club, but here we are. Yet, the song’s undercurrent of sacred music suggests a righteousness to the indignation Sufjan Stevens presents on this record. The dreary drones and vocal croons of “Tell Me You Love Me” carry a longing for divine grace as the world comes crashing down. The song’s rapturous crescendo reflects his resolution to live a life of love in spite of everything. This morbid sense of hope is expounded on “Die Happy,” which repeats its namesake over slowly burning drones, arpeggios and accelerating beats. He uses keyboards as a mini-orchestra and presents his doomer tendencies with a pursuit of transcendent meaning.
To be clear, Stevens’ embrace of synths has little to do with ‘80s nostalgia. Whether it’s the glitchy weirdness of “Ativan” or the polarized dynamic shifts of “Ursa Major,” he treats this approach like he did folk music on Illinois. And yet, Casey Foubert incorporates some tasty guitar work where it counts much—especially on “Landslide,” which comes through with a dazzling solo. Having Foubert to man the bass and guitar imparts a more human undercurrent to the alien drum loops and synth patches.
It’s important to have a musical grounding during a track like “Gilgamesh,” named after the legendary hero of ancient Mesopotamia. Stevens seems to mourn for these present days of wandering and loss, while dreaming of a return to good. “Oh my heart will fantasize of Eden,” he sings.
The album does maintain a nonthreatening aura, even when more percussive beats kick in on “Death Star” and “Goodbye To All That.” This is mostly due to Stevens’ voice, which maintains a silky timbre even as foreboding synth lines and noisy rhythms build to critical mass. While fairly uniform in its delivery, this songwriter’s work remains intuitive by design.
His melodic intuition allows certain tracks to forsake traditional structure without sacrificing emotional impact. The album has a more glacial flow than his acoustic material, especially the title track, which has not even an echo of a beat. Even so, Stevens’ voice steadily drives the evolving tapestry immersive textures and chords. The chorus seems to sum up his sentiment on this album as he bemoans the world and its inhabitants as they all fall farther and farther from the values he holds dear. “But now it strikes me far too late again/ That I was asking far too much of everyone around me,” he sings.
The Ascension lives up to its name in more ways than one. Sufjan Stevens finally allows himself to express his true feelings on the world. After years of being the vulnerable crooner, he simultaneously breaks his format and throws past niceties into the face of a world for which he’s tired of cutting slack.