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Review: Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Ascension’ is an eclectic and experimental electronica effort

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 24, 2020

By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Sufjan Stevens has made a name for himself across the board, from scoring a major motion picture (2017’s “Call Me by Your Name,” the soundtrack for which earned him an Academy Award and a Grammy nomination) to several acclaimed solo albums (2005’s “Illinois”).

His sound has seen frequent changes, from whispery, mellow gospel-folk on “Seven Swans” to proper electronica. This album, his first solo release since 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell,” leans heavily toward his electronic side but is a step beyond any of what he has done previously.

In his last album, Stevens’ lyrics were greatly concerned with himself, death, God and his own history. Tracks like “Fourth of July” are deeply personal ballads of narrative perfection, but what we are faced with in “The Ascension” is something entirely different, something much more generally concerned.

The album’s overall palette is electronic, largely composed of glimmering synths and heavy production. In addition to these, Sufjan makes interesting use of a vast array of abrasive sounds. These set the album apart from anything he has done before but can occasionally retract from the listening experience.

The opening track, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” is eerie and a little psychedelic. Sufjan’s voice is in its typical airy, soft-spoken form accompanied by a vast percussive background and a lot of sounds. Here, his eclectic composition is wonderful. The complicated relationships between each sound are on full display. It is a promising start to the album.

In subsequent tracks “Run Away With Me” and the previously released “Video Game,” Stevens moves sounds around in low-fi electronica and glimmering synth-pop tracks. Both are wonderful and engaging listens, and the latter was accompanied by a music video featuring Tik Tok dancer Jalaiah Harmon.

Shortly thereafter, the album becomes more experimental, easing itself into what will be a slightly esoteric, somewhat abrasive, but impactful couple of tracks at the album’s center, where Stevens pushes the boundaries of sound and song.

In making those pushes, “The Ascension” takes form as an occasionally beautiful, occasionally ear-splitting array of tracks that – mostly – works. It is not the kind of soft-spoken beauty lovers of “Carrie & Lowell” would prefer, but a grittier aesthetic.

“Die Happy,” the album’s sixth track, is a slow and constant build. The only lyric is “I wanna die happy,” repeated in almost the same tone each time as the background evolves and changes.

Here, the gradual addition of different sounds and tones and the repetition of “I wanna die happy” serve to complicate that lyric. It is a wonderfully clever song, one that draws a lot of nuance from four words.

After that track, however, Sufjan’s sounds can sometimes be a little much, to the point where one must ask, “If this wasn’t Sufjan Stevens, would I like this?” After due consideration, one concludes yes, these songs are enjoyable and well-made, though they are not the sort of music one listens to in the car.

Some of the album’s tracks (“Ativan” comes to mind most immediately) are only appreciable as clever, esoteric compositions. That said, their cleverness is remarkable. It just lends a little difficulty to immersing oneself in the album.

Thematically, “The Ascension” is full of darkness, faith and questioning. In its epic 1 hour and 20 minutes, the album’s reduced lyrics and amplified tone paint a despair-filled, or at least uncertain, image of the world, cushioned (or emphasized) by complex electronica.

It’s a sensation that comes to a point in final track “America,” a 12-minute political piece about Stevens’ loss of faith in America and one of the album’s best songs. Overall, Stevens applies his compositional brilliance to a fresh field of sounds. The result is sometimes stunning, sometimes alienating, but always impressive.

As an artist with a huge diversity among his works, this album is sure to please a subset of his fans and irk another. But among the lengthy track list, there should be something exciting for everyone. Personal favorite? “Die Happy.”

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