60 second reviews, Music, Reviews

The Ascension: Sufjan Stevens

(Asthmatic Kitty)

An elixir for 2020

Sufjan Stevens is clearly a talented artist, long recognised for making touching music, particularly with his highly lauded and deeply personal album, 2015s, ‘Carrie & Lowell’ and the majestic ‘Illinois’ from 2005. And whilst he has dabbled in electronics, his main area of expertise has been based around his heartfelt singing with typically an indie/folk guitar soundtrack. On ‘The Ascension’, his 8th album and first for 5 years, Stevens has gone for an electronic sound. In a big way. But is it a success? Or does it make Stevens sound like something he is not? (a mistake many music artists have made when changing genre).

The answer is the former. ‘The Ascension’, an 80 minute magnum opus, is brilliant from the opening pulsing of ‘Make me an offer I can’t refuse’ all the way through to closing track ‘America’, which literally slides away, leaving you feel as if you have just spent a large chunk of time being taken away, somewhere where you have switched off from modern life.

In between the opening and closing bookends, pretty much every track is a story within a story. Steven’s gentle voice is like a more direct version of Wayne Coyne’s from The Flaming Lips. It’s sincere – just before the point of being over-emotional (something Coyne is at times guilty of). At times some of the tracks recall the tender moments from Norway’s Röyksopp (‘Run Away With Me’ and ‘Lamentations’) whilst others build into mini-symphonies – ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ with its pleading “I’m going to love you every day” is particularly yearning.

Electronica flourishes aside, this is still a Stevens record and lyrically he has the ability to connect with the listener, whatever their context may be, and connect it to the struggles he has clearly faced in his life. His emotional calls are direct, none more so than the call-to-arms ‘Die Happy’ and the brilliant ‘Ativan’ – the anxiety drug referencing song where Steven’s states how he “could not get the spirit off my back”. Ativan even ends up morphing into a brilliant housey trance track for the last couple of minutes – something I never thought I’d write about when reviewing a Sufjan Stevens record (Although he is from Detroit, one of the birthplaces of modern dance music, so there could be inspiration from that).

Stevens also manages time on this beast of the record to critique other aspects of our increasingly confounding world, such as in ‘Video Game’, his most direct pop song ever, where he attacks the influence of social media ‘I don’t want to be the center of the universe’. There’s even time for a song which comes across as quite flirty, ‘Sugar’, which in reality is about the good things in life, rather than sexual tinges the song initially implies.

In a world of quick fixes, it is a pleasure to listen to an 80 minute album when it is brilliantly put together. Whilst some may think ‘The Ascension’ is a little bloated due to its massive length, there is no fat on this record – I recommend either going for a walk or run to it, or putting on the headphones and laying down on a couch. It’ll more than likely take you on a journey and connect with you. It’ll also take you somewhere else, an always-desired quality.

9/10

Key Tracks: ‘Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse’; ‘Run Away With Me’; ‘Video Game’; ‘Tell Me You Love Me’; ‘Ativan’; ‘Landslide’; ‘Sugar’.

Love this album? For further listening here are some recommendations:

‘The Soft Bulletin’ – The Flaming Lips; ‘Junior’ – Röyksopp; ‘Music Complete – New Order’

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