tl; dr: I love it
I think it’s safe to call Sufjan Stevens one of the best songwriters of the 21st century. Whether he used his words to weave his personal history together with the history of America, explore faith and love, or exorcise his own suffering, Stevens has never failed to connect with me (A Sun Came doesn’t count), and he’s rarely failed to connect with one of the most quietly devoted fan bases in indie. Though known primarily for folk, Sufjan has spent the better part of the last decade experimenting with the synthetic world of electronic music to varying degrees of commitment and success. He kicked off the 2010s with a maximalist fusion of orchestral arrangements and beat-driven pop in The Age of Adz, while this year saw the release of Aporia, an intriguing if not entirely compelling step into the world of new age that Stevens took alongside his stepfather Lowell Brams. With that in mind, The Ascension isn’t all that shocking of a turn musically. What is shocking, is the change of heart.
“My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything”
The Ascension is the sound of a man in crisis. After purging his personal grief via Carrie & Lowell and the tour that followed, Sufjan looks back out at the world, and he’s horrified by what he sees. The entertainment industry’s seedy underbelly has been exposed, bigotry of all kinds is expressed more loudly and more publicly than ever, and it seems like six different catastrophes are racing to see which can wipe humanity out the fastest. It’s overwhelming for everyone, and that’s exactly what Stevens aims to capture. He hasn’t just traded banjos and horns for synthesizers and drum machines, but detailed personal narratives have been set aside for a more streamlined, in your face approach to songwriting. Specific events and interactions are replaced by pained demands and cosmic questions as a jaded Sufjan begs someone, ANYONE, to help him make sense of it all.
If that sounds hard to listen to, ‘Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse’ should instantly dispel any fears that The Ascension will be a joyless experience. Stevens’ voice warbles over a constantly building synthetic symphony, instantly calling to my mind a less cluttered incarnation of the most thrilling moments of Adz. His pining for some higher purpose explodes into a euphoric wail as the song opens like heaven’s gates around the three minute mark, just before you’re sent plummeting down to earth by the menacing, pseudo-industrial march at the end. It’s the most bombastic start to a Sufjan Stevens project in at least a decade, while introducing the central motif of The Ascension. Many themes and ideas spin in tandem with each other like cigs in a great machine, some emotional and some political, but at its core, this is search for anything that can reassure a man who has lost faith in everything that has comforted him in the past.
There’s an intense desire to escape that dominates the first half of the record. It’s not surprising considering titles like ‘Ativan,’ a drug used to treat anxiety, and ‘Run Away With Me,’ the latter of which sounds less like some exciting adventure and more like a sad dream that Stevens admits is unrealistic as he sings the phrase, “sweet falling fantasy,” in each wistful chorus. ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ is the song that hits the hardest here, perfectly capturing how it feels to try and be in love during a time when personal happiness seems selfish. It’s not the first time Sufjan has retreated into someone’s arms as a coping mechanism: I’m reminded of the final stretch of Carrie & Lowell, where he looked for comfort outside of himself in friends, lovers, and religion. Here though, it reaches a fever pitch as you’re invited to shout the defiant refrain of “I’m gonna love you!,” because if you don’t, then the only things left are doubt and hopelessness.
‘Die Happy’ and the aforementioned ‘Ativan’ further this determination to shut the world out to little success. The former is stuck on only the melancholy of “I wanna die happy” as the esoteric, Kid A-esque instrumental does the heavy lifting to communicate the sensation of total collapse. The latter winds up being one of the strangest, most heartbreaking, and catchiest moments in not just the album, but the greater Sufjan Stevens canon. What begins as an attempt to suppress worry transforms into a confrontation as the singer whose whole career has been rooted in faith asks, “Is it all for nothing? Is it all part of a plan?” during the breaks in between an instrumental that I can only describe as an oncoming electronic panic attack. It’s shocking to hear, even side by side with uncomfortable verses that range from suicidal to scatological, and it’s here that The Ascension’s dejection begins to sharpen into frustration.
‘Ursa Major,’ ‘Landslide,’ and ‘Gilgamesh’ all serve to push Sufjan and those along for the ride further down this path of urgent demands and accusations. The first not-so-meekly asks for guidance from a greater power, while the third of these wrestles with the inevitability of death through the lens of the oldest story ever recorded. Still, it’s ‘Landslide’ that proves to be the greatest moment of release. Sufjan’s tone of writing makes him seem fed up, using imperative language in the verses before exclaiming in desperation in the chorus: “You got me caught in a landslide!” It’s hard to tell who he’s accusing and making demands to - it could be his lover, his God, his country, or just anyone who’s listening - but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel caught up in that rush of emotion right there with him. It’s possibly the most triumphant moment on what’s often a very defeated listen, conjuring an image of Stevens briefly gripping the steering wheel and regaining control mid-hydroplane.
It’s on ‘Death Star’ that the disillusionment coursing through The Ascension finally reaches anger. A warped beat wreaks havoc on a spaced out soundscape while Sufjan mocks humanity for their self-destructive tendencies. It’s the most danceable song aimed at climate change deniers and the hateful mobs of the world I’ve heard all year (sorry, Grimes), but it’s still deeply unsettling. That fire fizzles out as the song smoothly transitions into its sonic sister song, ‘Goodbye To All That,’ Sufjan’s break-up letter to American culture. It sounds like leaving a long term home that was never truly home: a feeling I know all too well. The drive-into-the-sunset verses and angelic chorus conjures the feeling that I had when I flew away from the state I’d grown up in for the last ten years. It’s an intensely bittersweet moment: after all, it’s everything I’d known for a long time, but it was also no good for me. I had been trapped for so long, and all of a sudden, I was free... The song may not be pure bliss, but it’s one of precious few moments that sounds even remotely optimistic.
It’s on the final three tracks that we finally have room to breathe - to assess the damage and decide what the best course of action is. ‘Sugar’ is the tired sigh of someone who understands just how bad things really are, and wants nothing more than a little piece of purity to cling to. It’s the final, pathetic attempt to distract yourself from the problem with something more appealing, but it’s right after that fails that a wave of clarity finally washes over you. The title track is Sufjan’s re-examination of himself and his beliefs. In the record’s most cutting act of introspection, he understands that he too has been in the wrong, and that the world is not the only source of his suffering. He imagines himself being judged, and sees that he’s been too quick to judge and selfish in his own right. He can’t expect the world to be decent, let alone to make him happy. All he can do is make sure that he is decent. It’s a struggle that I hope most fellow Christians can identify with: the hard duality of wanting to be good and help heal the world, but not having the power of even the moral strength to do so... wanting an answer from God as to why He allows things to be so broken, but knowing that you’ll never get one while you’re alive on this earth. You know the problem, but what are you supposed to do about it? In Sufjan’s own words:
It’s a question that has no concrete answer. Still, Sufjan doesn’t leave you without ANY kind of resolution. If ‘Goodbye To All That,’ was a break-up with America as a culture, the twelve minute closer serves as a break-up with its namesake as an idea. On ‘America,’ Stevens reaches the hard conclusion that the country he spent the first decade of his career idealizing may be broken beyond repair, but maybe he himself isn’t yet. America might be royally fucked, but does that mean we, as individuals are too? Probably, but it’s easier to pull a single person out of the mud than an entire country. The final words heard on The Ascension might be that deity-sized plea of, “Don’t do you me what you did to America,” but the album doesn’t end there. No, after a freakish drone that accurately expresses the dread any sane person would feel in times like these, a twinkling piano line fades in, joining with a heavenly voice to close things on an uncharacteristically hopeful note. It’s the sound of realization: a glimmer of hope while a faint idea comes to mind. In order to ever be happy, let alone at peace, Sufjan has to turn his back on the loud, noxious behemoth that he has for so long called his home. If he can abandon the toxicity that comes with the concept and ideology of “America,” and encourage others to, then maybe, just maybe... we can find a way out.
It’s difficult for me to say how The Ascension stacks up to the rest of Sufjan Stevens’ catalogue, simply because of how different it feels. I definitely understand those who miss the narrative-focused songwriting of songs like ‘Predatory Wasp’ or ‘To Be Alone With You,’ but there is merit in a more general approach. There’s more room than ever for interpretation here: I am able to project myself onto the music more than ever on songs like ‘Tell Me You Love Me,’ and I already know that I’ve pulled different meanings from the record than many critics and even friends of mine. Rather than holding a mirror to his own face and taking a photo, more than ever, Sufjan takes time to turn that mirror to reflect his audience and the world around them. It’s a venture as confusing as it is compelling, a synthetic odyssey that fans will be able to pick apart until Stevens’ next full-length offering. As for right now, it might be just the thing some people need to hear: not a cure, or even an answer, but a reminder that someone else is thinking about and searching for those things too. For me, that’s more than enough to hail it as a welcome addition to Sufjan’s discography.
All that being said, Sufjan does not say ‘fuck’ on this album, so I’m gonna have to give it a 0/10.