Sufjan Stevens is probably my favorite artist of the 21st century. Albums like Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois and Carrie and Lowell are all timeless records that mean a lot to me and that have helped me through difficult times. During the worst times of my life, struggling with depression and anxiety, I listened to Sufjan every single night. His guitar strumming, banjo plucking and soft vocals comforted me and enabled me to process what I was feeling. Thus, I can definitely say that Sufjan has a very special place in my heart.
Because of how much his music means to me, I obviously was really excited and nervous for this album release. It doesn't happen often that he releases something but when he does, I know that he will deliver something special. The Ascension, Sufjan's latest record is no exception to this pattern. The Ascension is a cold and psychedelic experience that uses ambient pop and electronic synths to tell a story of frustration, one of bitterness and hopelessness.
This album essentially is the exact opposite of something like Illinois. Whereas Illinois is joyous, colorful, and instrumentally rich, the Ascension is dark, instrumentally sparse and minimal. It mainly relies on synthesizers and drum machines to build beautiful soundscapes. The production is absolutely gorgeous. The audio engineering is top notch and some of the instrumental passages on songs like Run Away With Me, America, and Landslide are incredibly memorable.
Vocally, Sufjan brings the absolute best of what he has to offer. I seriously think that his vocals have never sounded better. It seems like he has gained vocal range and the way he belts his way through choruses on the opener, and a song like Landslide impressed me a lot. Moreover, I think his falsetto also improved.
What I admire the most about this record is that it shows that Sufjan is still able to take risks, to experiment and to surprise people. Even though this record builds upon the electronics of Age of Adz and the ambient passages of Planetarium, it truly doesn't sound like any other Sufjan Stevens album. It stands on his own as a distinct and unique album within Sufjan's impressive career.
Me praising the hell out of this album doesn't mean that this album is flawless. There were a few minor issues that I had with regards to this record. The first is that some songs felt like they were merely there to fill time on the record. Songs like Lamentations, Ursa Major and Gilgamesh are too short to develop into something memorable and feel like they are mainly there to add extra length to the album. This shouldn't have been necessary since the album is already quite long. Moreover, I would have liked to see a little more instrumental variation.
Nonetheless, I'm proud of Sufjan. I adore this new record and I am proud of his ambition and will to take risks and surprise people with incredible music each time he surfaces.