By Dave Bertram
The Ascension paints Sufjan’s disillusionment with society on electronic beats and synths in a marked departure from his last solo record.
On his first solo album in five years, we find Sufjan Stevens is a particularly disdainful mood. ‘I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus, I don’t wanna live inside of that flame,’ he lashes on the jaunty electro-pop of Video Game; ‘I have loved you, I have grieved, I’m ashamed to admit it, I no longer believe,’ he proclaims on the expansive, epic twelve-minute closing track, America; ‘Fill me with the blood of Jesus,’ he cries over the industrial beats of Lamentation.
I think we can all relate to this lament and no, it’s not faith-based, more global anxieties and the wretched nature of humanity. In an interview with The Atlantic, Sufjan explained America -which was also the lead single – as a ‘crisis of faith about my identity as an American, and about my relationship to our culture, which I think is really diseased right now.’
This mournful tone provides a parallel with the wonderful Carrie & Lowell – his masterpiece of eleven precious stories that addressed the death of his mother. But where his previous solo record was soft and acoustic-led, The Ascension is glossy, upbeat, industrial and often chaotic. It’s the electronic pulse of The Age of Adz that hangs much heavier, as you’d probably expect the overarching narrative to. There are moments of serious contemplation; when the pace of Ativan falls away into a reflective collage of soft strings or when the classic choral voices break into the chorus of Landslide.
Emotively this certainly fits with our current chaotic circumstances but finished in December 2019, he was focused on the invasion of technology, the threat to American democracy and the dystopian slide we’re all sat on. It’s heavy on the programmed drumbeats and industrial synthesisers which draw influence from the likes of Depeche Mode and David Byrne and 80’s mainstream pop; it’s crammed with many of the usual features lyrically, circling confessions and biblical references.
The Ascension will disappoint those looking for a repeat of his previous. As a best-of-all-time contender, that was a one-off snapshot of a period of ultra-personal pain. Make no mistake, this is still sad. But the vibrant electronic arrangements make it lively to match the disillusionment and the aggression you’d suppose he’s channelling. His exploration of new themes, ideas and instrumentation continues.
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