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Sufjan Stevens
Julianna Pijar / Gavel Media

Sufjan Stevens Misses the Mark With New Album 'The Ascension'

Sufjan Stevens released his long-anticipated electropop album The Ascension on Sept. 25 after a five-year wait since his last major release, Carrie & Lowell. In an interview with The Guardian, the Detroit-born indie musician revealed that he had moved to the mountains of upstate New York after nearly 20 years of living in New York City. Stevens stated that this was a return to form, as he spent his childhood in the rural countryside of Upper Michigan and initially found city-dwelling not to his taste. As to whether The Ascension is a return to musical form remains to be seen below. 

Stevens’ previous albums have been indie folk and indie rock romps, covering a wide variety of topics ranging from God to serial killers to love. He first reached critical acclaim with his albums Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005), which celebrated the two Great Lakes states. Stevens would reach even further acclaim with Carrie & Lowell (2015), which explored his grief after the death of his mother, the eponymous Carrie. However, “The Mystery of Love,” written for Luca Guadagnino’s film adaptation of Call Me by Your Name (2017), is what finally brought Stevens to mainstream audiences. But while these earlier works feature folksy guitar instrumentation, grand indie-orchestral scores, and a fundamental love for the United States, The Ascension strays from any preconceived notions about Stevens' artistry. 

The first track, “Give Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” is a glitchy electronic beat, characterized by grand swells that are punctuated by Stevens' almost breathless vocals and abrupt techno-bubbling. The lyrics are Stevens’ prayers to God: “Lord, I need deliverance/Make me an offer I cannot refuse.” The composition starts off strong, but towards the second half, it takes a puzzling turn. It switches from electropop harmonies to a distorted siren swell and abruptly cuts off, providing no relief for the buildup. 

The next track, “Run Away With Me,” is a smoother, softer ambient track, evoking a “floating” experience. Stevens’ singing is gentler and more whispered, with an overall warmth saturating the piece. It slowly builds up its own grand swell, but much like “Give Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” it does nothing with it.  Each element of the song instead progressively stops until it gently ends.

“Video Game” is a mellow pop-y track, characterized by silly lyrics and a catchy beat. Drums play underneath an ethereal hum. Stevens sings:

I don’t wanna love you if you won’t receive it
I don’t wanna save the world that way
I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus
I don’t wanna play your video game.

The track is a fun listen, but it fails to grab much attention. 

The next song on offer is “Lamentations,” which is a marked jump in quality. The fast and glitchy electronic beat from “Give Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” returns, but now alternates with mellower sections of Stevens’ singing. Distorted electronic sputters and cries cut in throughout. Two-thirds of the way into the track, Stevens’ vocals halt, and a lavish orchestral swell alongside the electronics takes his place. The two complement each other surprisingly well. In the last half-minute, the swell cuts off in favor of a melodic choir, which gently fades out.

Next up is “Tell Me You Love Me,” which is structurally and sonically similar to “Run Away With Me,” with the notable exception that its swell has a payoff—a grand one at that. Stevens sings, “I’m gonna love you,” while electric harmonies envelop the listener with energetic warmth.

The next two songs act as a two-part package. “Die Happy” is unsettling. Stevens repeatedly sings “I wanna die happy” alongside increasingly distorted and surreal vocal harmonies. It builds up a sensation of dread, relieved by a strangely fitting beat drop around halfway through the song. The second half is loaded with otherworldly vocal and digital effects. It’s well-mixed and the atmosphere is delightfully moody, which leads perfectly into “Ativan,” named after the anti-anxiety drug. This is another glitchy, electronic track in which Stevens’ singing—and even screaming—punctuate a harsh, fast-paced beat that replicates a panic attack. The song wonderfully builds up to Stevens singing,

Is it all for nothing?
Is it all part of a plan?
Tranquilize me and revise me, Ativan
(Ativan, my leading woman).

The music then cuts out, leaving harsh and rapid electronic beats, eventually leading into orchestral violin which plays for the last minute. “Die Happy” and “Ativan” together form a high point that is rivaled only by the last two tracks of the album. However, they also mark the beginning of a series of songs varying from mediocre to outright unpleasant. 

Starting with “Ursa Major,” poorly-mixed, incoherent, and disjointed electric instrumentations and vocals blare through the speakers. The song is incredibly unpleasant to listen to, even on repeat listens. The next four tracks—“Landslide,” “Gilgamesh,” “Death Star,” and “Goodbye To All That”—are just as unlistenable. Though more nicely composed, “Landslide” features ear-piercing high notes which ruin otherwise smooth and melodic ambient sounds.

“Sugar” starts off strong with rhythmic and atmospheric ambient music but is ruined by Stevens’ uncharacteristically terrible lyrics. The song is intended to be cheesy fun, but it is too cheesy and not that much fun: “C’mon, baby, give me some sugar.” 

The last two tracks are easily the best on the album. The title track, “The Ascension,” lives up to its name. In wild contrast to “Sugar,” Stevens’ lyrics are excellent:

And now it frightens me, the thought against my chest
To think I was asking for a reason
Explaining why everything’s a total mess
And now it frightens me, the dreams that I possess
To think I was acting like a believer
When I was just angry and depressed.

His turbulent faith becomes the central theme, both in the lyrics and in the music. The song steadily builds up, as if in an ascent to God. The combination of piano and vocal harmony is arresting. For the last minute, these two elements come to the forefront as Stevens repeatedly sings, “What now?”

The final track, “America,” is a response to the current state of America, revealing Stevens’ total shock at the nation he once celebrated in Michigan and Illinois. He laments over everything wrong in the US, whereas in Illinois he once sang praise to obscure Revolutionary War heroes. Indeed, compare the lyrics of “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”—

Only a steel man can be a lover
If he had hands to tremble all over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another.

—to those of "America"—             

I have loved you, I have grieved
I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe
I have loved you, I received
I have traded my life for a picture of the scenery
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to America.

On the one hand, Stevens portrays the quintessential American Superman as Christ incarnate, someone who loves all and brings out communal celebration among his followers. On the other, Christ ignores the devout Stevens when he and his country need deliverance most. Indeed, as a result, he has lost his faith. He even blames Christ for what has happened to America. The scores for both songs are also radically different. Illinois’ “Man of Metropolis” alternates between angelic folk song and fast-paced rock, and is upbeat and cheery with choir music playing below Stevens’ folksy instrumentation and singing. In contrast, “America” is grim and chaotic. It progressively unravels in style, transforming from ethereal synth to bellowing electronic swells to harsh ambient sounds. However, in the last two minutes of “America,” a synthy piano plays a hopeful, otherworldly tune, suggesting that Stevens has not given up on the US just yet.  

Having said that, The Ascension is deeply underwhelming after five years of waiting. There are genuinely beautiful and evocative tracks, but these are bogged down by the mediocrity of others. Ultimately, even the most excellently-crafted pieces are unable to rescue the album as a whole.

Rating: 6/10

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