Written by Maria Arroyo
New York-based singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens shares his latest album, The Ascension. This release, in Stevens‘ words, is an “indictment of a world crumbling around us—and a roadmap out of here. This is a call for personal transformation and a refusal to play along with the systems around us. My objective for this album was simple,” Stevens explains. “Interrogate the world around you. Question anything that doesn’t hold water. Exterminate all bullshit. Be part of the solution or get out of the way. Keep it real. Keep it true. Keep it moving.” This eclectic collection of songs is unlike most, and definitely is a hefty listen.
The opening track, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” introduces some ethereal and psychedelic vibes to the album. Something that becomes a recurring theme throughout, is his use of layering different sections in order to best showcase them and really highlight certain sections as they arise, which allowed the listener to really take in every part that makes up the song.
“Run Away With Me” really resonated with me, and really created a very special type of experience for me. There’s a more intimate and personal touch that this song carries, while covering a bunch of different concepts and ideas.
His next song “Video Game” is very intense, but in the best of ways and is, hands down, probably the best representation of the album as a whole. I think it nails every aspect that all of the songs highlight, and is done very tastefully.
Those same intense moments reappear in his next track “Lamentations,” which becomes the best mix of old synth sounds with a modern flair to it. “Die Happy” is another highlight for me, mostly in the balance of his lyrical content and the instrumentation. There’s this strong juxtaposition between the two, which I love! He also opens up to us in a more vulnerable way while still remaining expressive and clear. There’s tons of movement and character for this song, and the great use of dynamics really brings this song to the next level.
“Ativan” has the most interesting choice of words, but is able to make the listener really think and process what the song is about. This song manages to break the rules of songwriting (making this simple, easy to follow, let’s us sing along, etc.) and nails it perfectly!
Stevens continues to bring unique elements that add a bit of punch to the song. His next track “Ursa Major” is more forward conceptually, while still showcasing his talent for blending together different layers of the song to work together as one. He really understand s his sense of musical space, in order to keep it from feeling overdone and oversaturated.
Stevens‘ next two tracks are definitely the ones that stray away from the album the most, but in a great way. “Gilgamesh” is very techno and digitally driven, while “Death Star” brings in some haunting vocal sections that kept me on my toes. The vocals are perfectly delayed to give that open and reverb kind of sound.
His next song, “Sugar,” is another amazingly executed song. The shared energy is intense and sensual, but manages to keep it sweet and interesting, and the buildup of harmonies are definitely an added bonus. “On the surface [Sugar] is just a string of clichés,” Stevens shares, “but the message is imperative: now is the time to gather what is good and pure and valuable and make it your own, and share it with others. Feed your soul and speak new life into those around you. Give each other love, respect and sacrifice. This is our calling.”
The Ascension highlights his incredible talent for his intricate storytelling. Stevens is able to create tons of movement and room for that intensity to build, release, and fall back down. This is shown in both the rise and fall of the instrumentation, but also in the vocal melody and its twists and turns throughout. The 15th and final track of The Ascension is the longest of them all, and for good reason. “America” is an intense look into some deep concepts and realities. There’s a lot to take in, and at the very end, you can still feel like there’s so much more than he wants to say. The lyrics resonate intensely and can really speak to a ton of different people. It’s the big wakeup call of the album, and probably the most highly anticipated single of them all. This song definitely lived up to its expectations!
‘The Ascension’ is an album of thought and action, one for people who want something more than just what’s at the surface. Like I said, these songs are unlike most with a heavier load in terms of concepts, but it’s worth every damn moment of it.
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