Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz presents a schizophrenic vision of life and love. For the past decade his fans have witnessed intimate portraits of his life in the idyllic Midwest. Adz catapults them from temporal to the cosmic plane on an existential rocket ship.
Throughout Sufjan’s new album, the listener is repeatedly haunted by his inner dialogue as he falls in-and-out of love, over-and-over again. Digging into to the very core of his identity, he discovers a cacophony of voices both holy and base. His electronic space-pop flows together with the Apocalyptic visions of Royal Robertson, a black artist from the deep South who suffered from schizophrenia.
Sufjan’s music merges with Royal Robertson’s art into musical dreamscapes of space monsters, love, Biblical prophecy, and ultimately heartbreak. Consistent with these schizophrenic themes, Adz exposes the different voices competing for space in the artists’ head.
1) The Rejected (and Rejecting) Lover | Futile Devices
The album begins with Sufjan listening to his lover play guitar, and mesmerized as he watches them crochet in the opening track, Futile Devices. The chorus is a simple, “I do / love you.” But Sufjan’s love does not come as easy as it seems at first blush. The song — and the entire album — begins:
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve memorized your face
It’s been four hours now since I’ve wandered through your place
And when I sleep on your couch I feel very safe
And when you bring the blankets I cover up my face
The first three lines take the listener from the distant past into the immediate present. Is Sufjan reminiscing after a break up, or is he reflecting on the present, foreshadowing trouble to come? Sufjan plays with the language, making him difficult to locate throughout the album. This song reveals much, yet he conceals his face. Where is Sufjan?
By the end of the track we learn that he refuses to say “I love you” because saying it is hard. Even as Sufjan speaks about his lover and he reveals his personal life, we are never quite sure that he isn’t just talking to himself.
2) The Prophet | Get Real, Get Right
In a mid-album track — Get Real, Get Right — Sufjan explores ideas at the intersection between genuine prophetic revelation, divine inspiration, and insanity.
He begs the question, “When I hear God, how can I be sure I’m not just talking to myself?” Sufjan hears the divine command to “Get right with the Lord!” He witnesses the power of God in the volcanic eruptions of the sacred Mt. Vusivious. He begs “Fortune save me from his wrath.” Like Job standing before the Whirlwind, Arjuna before the battle, and Royal Robertson facing his divorce, Sufjan’s prophetic visions come amidst a crisis.
As Sufjan recently revealed to Exclaim! Magazine, “I did get very sick last year and had some serious health issues that were really confusing and mysterious and debilitating.” Sufjan’s visions leave us questioning the line between revelation and schizophrenia.
3) The Musician | Impossible Soul
Imagine you’re a successful artist who, nevertheless, begins to question the purpose of releasing an album in the age of iTunes? What if you even began doubting the possibility of meaningful communication through music? In Adz we meet Sufjan the musician staring down this nexus of questions in apparent existential distress.
Sufjan discussed his insecurities facing these questions in a recent interview: “I think it was an anxiety about language and semantics and what determines an album, you know?…I had this existential conundrum of ‘what am I doing? Why am I doing it?”
So Sufjan closes his album with a twenty-five minute closing track, Impossible Soul, in several movements, underscoring a wanton (perhaps reckless?) disregard for contemporary pop-music conventions (video below). Sufjan saves his audience the trouble of listening to these several related tracks in succession and gives them a choice: either listen to it all at once, and in order, or not at all. You can’t even download the track from iTunes.
Sufjan the musician doesn’t care. The music isn’t for you. It’s for him.
The Age of Adz exposes a lonely and confused Sufjan Stevens who admits – most recently in an interview with Pitchfork magazine — to the competing voices in his head:
“I can’t apologize for the direction I’m going because it feels necessary and obvious. I know it’s confusing because I’m something of an aesthetic nightmare, and I kind of suffer from multiple personality disorder. But that’s part of me and my character.”
Sufjan peppers the album with references to language and communication. By the end of first song words become “futile devices.” He tries to “explain” in I Walked. Speeches are delivered in Get Real Get Right. He talks but no one listens in Bad Communication.
Even the misspelling of “Odds” in the album name underscores the disjointed nature of Sufjan’s relationship with language, his listeners and himself. One can’t help but feel something is being lost in translation — but between which Sufjan and which audience?
Josiah Waderich contributed to this review.