By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]
Key tracks: “Futile Devices,” “Age of Adz,” and “Impossible Soul”
Sufjan Stevens is renowned as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and for good reason. Albums like Illinois and Carrie & Lowell demonstrate his incredible ability to craft immaculate chamber and folk music, and contain some of the best storytelling of the 21st century. In 2010, Stevens dropped an EP titled All Delighted People that showed a different side of his lyricism. It was more personal, more introspective and less storytelling. The EP was quite depressing, and it’s not like Stevens’ music wasn’t sad before, but this was sad in a different way. “The Owl and the Tanager” depicts abuse in a homosexual relationship, and “Arnika” exclaims “I’m tired of life” in the chorus, repeated over and over.
Later in 2010, Sufjan would release an album titled The Age of Adz which expanded on the lyrical experimentation of All Delighted People, but also saw Sufjan experimenting musically as well. The Age of Adz blends glitch pop and prog pop, creating a unique pop experience unlike anything else.
The first track, “Futile Devices” lulls the listener into a false sense of security. It is a folk tune, true to classic Sufjan fashion. Lyrically, the song deals with a person who struggles with internalized homophobia trying to figure out their feelings for their same-gender friend. It opens with one of the most beautiful testaments of love in modern poetry, “It’s been a long long time since I’ve memorized your face.” The song is heartbreaking and sets up the theme of lost love that flows through the album (the album is almost a breakup album) “And I would say I love you / But saying it out loud is hard / So I won’t say it at all / And I won’t stay very long.”
The second track is an immediate sonic change of pace. “Too Much” was released as a single, with a shorter version; however, the album version is nearly seven minutes. The song is about recognizing the weight of love, and the fear of that weight. This song is significant because it is the first song on the album that sounds like the rest of the album. It demonstrates the musical territory Sufjan is going to conquer throughout the rest of the record. It starts with a series of noises that juxtapose the sonics of “Futile Devices.”
Following “Too Much” is the epic title track. The song begins with an experimental segment that takes up the majority of the song, concluding with Sufjan repeating the horribly upsetting lines “I’ve lost the will to fight / I was not made for life.” The song fizzles out into a folk section that mirrors “Futile Devices,” it’s the shocking calm after the frightening storm. It begins with “Now I have known you for just a little while,” which contradicts the intro of the first part of the song where Sufjan states “I feel I’ve known you, I feel I’ve seen you when the Earth was split in fives.” Sufjan continues down a self-detrimental path, apologizing for his selfishness in the relationship, something that is addressed several times throughout the album. “I feel I must be wearing my welcome / I must be moving on / For my intentions were good intentions / I could have loved you, I could have changed you / I wouldn’t be so, I wouldn’t feel so / Consumed by selfish thoughts / I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing / Consumed by selfish thoughts / It’s only that I still love you deeply / It’s all the love I got.” And with that surrender, the song fades into nothing.
“I Walked” is one of the more explicit breakup songs on the album, and one of the easier to digest musically. It begins with a painful stanza in which Sufjan pleads for closure he will not receive: “Lover, will you look at me now? / I’m already dead to you,” “For at least I deserve the respect of a kiss goodbye.” The title of the song refers to the concept of walking away from a relationship, but as the lyrics reveal, this act of defiance may not have been something he wanted, or was easy, or was even his choice. The song is a beautiful testament to the pain of the destruction of love.
The next handful of songs are also brilliant. The slower “Now That I’m Older” contains backup vocals from Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), with whom Sufjan has worked with before. “Vesuvius” is another highlight, containing more fantastic lyrics about insecurities and a haunting melody.
“All for Myself” is a personal favorite. It is one of the shortest songs on the album, but I also feel it is one of the most impactful. The song deals with the selfishness Sufjan feels within a relationship with another man, exclaiming that “I want it all for myself,” “Your shoulder blade, your running life” in the chorus. The song received some recognition when it was sampled by Kendrick Lamar on “Hood Politics” from the renowned To Pimp a Butterfly. That song illustrates what “All for Myself” does so well, the swelling of the melody, the consistent unease that accompanies said swelling. The chorus of the song blooms with sound, almost overwhelmingly so. The second chorus contains perhaps the most intimate moments of the album, “For in the earth, I smell of you.” Smelling like your lover is a grand mark of love, and it makes this song very touching.
“I Want to Be Well” is probably Sufjan’s most intense song. The song begins not more aggressive than any other track on the album, and proceeds this way for a little bit, but it eventually descends into madness. Sufjan repeats a nauseating amount of times “I want to be well, I want to be well,” enunciated so that it is unclear if he is saying “I want to be well” or “Well, I want to be,” beautifully articulating the feelings of unrealness that so frequently accompany unwellness. As the background singers repeat the mantra of “I want to be well”/ Well, I want to be,” Sufjan begins to repeat “I’m not fucking around,” depicting the serious nature of his derealization and struggle with being unwell. It is also exceedingly rare for Sufjan to curse, yet he says fuck 16 times throughout this portion of the track. It creates very high tension in the listener, and a feeling of uneasiness. It is these moments that make the song so intense and even almost scary.
The final song on the album is the 25-minute, five part “Impossible Soul.” The song depicts the collapse of a relationship, as well as Sufjan’s mental state in response to this collapse. It is the culmination of everything the album is. It feels as if the entire album has been condensed into a single 25-minute epic. Part one is amazing, containing some of my favorite music from the entire record. It also contains some of my favorite lyrics. “And all I couldn’t sing / I would say it all my life to you / If I could get you at all.” What a fantastic line about love. And that is far from the only gem in this section. Parts two and three are heavily introspective. Part two heavily features Shara Nova. Part four is the longest part, and it’s actually upbeat, perhaps the happiest sounding part of the entire album. It’s anthemic. Sufjan sings with a backup choir, “It’s a long life, better pinch yourself / Put your face together, better get it right / It’s a long life, better hit yourself / Put your face together, better stand up straight / it’s a long life, only one last chance / Couldn’t get much better, do you wanna dance? / It’s a long life, better pinch yourself / Get your face together, better stand up straight.” Very hopeful and uplifting. The chorus of this section features Sufjan and the choir triumphantly singing “It’s not so impossible” as horns and strings match the triumph of their voices. It’s honestly overwhelmingly moving. The strings are so gorgeous. It’s so dancey and fun and beautiful that it almost moves me to tears. This part slowly starts to fade and transition into the final section, a lush folk section that once again returns to the theme of the breakup. Sufjan ends another long song with a folk movement, just like on the title track. It is once again reminiscent of the opener, “Futile Devices.” This fifth section features several lyrical motifs from part four, such as “Boy, we can do much more together.” The song and album finally end with the repetition of “Boy, we made such a mess together.” Not a very hopeful way to end an album that is in all honesty, a bit of a bummer.
The Age of Adz is one of the most affecting albums of the 2010s. It is seeping with emotion in every song. It is a hauntingly beautiful album that is bound to leave a lasting impression on anyone who listens to it. It is a demonstration of Sufjan’s range not only as a musician, but as a lyricist. Illinois is a classic, but Age of Adz is a masterpiece in its own right, and deserves more attention than it receives. So next time you’re feeling sad, throw it on, and see what that does for you.