With each Sufjan Stevens release, one can expect a few given qualities — deeply personal songwriting, flawless production and highly conceptual experimentation. Looking at his discography, which spans for nearly 20 years, it’s quite clear Stevens has transformed his sound extensively. The last decade has indicated a massive change in Stevens’ music, shifting from his positive, indie-folk beginnings to a more reflective and inward disposition. On “The Ascension,” released Sept. 25, Stevens is richly intimate and careful with each and every one of his words, pondering the world and his faith with an ambitious perspective. His second release of 2020, this record has Stevens at his prime — a visceral, electronic album that feels appropriate for all of the insanity this year has brought.
Clocking in at 15 tracks and 80 minutes, “The Ascension” is initially overwhelming and difficult to interpret. This record is one of Stevens’ most ambitious works yet, filled with nuance and challenging listeners to find meaning in it by looking inwards. Stevens accompanies his emotional lyrics with desolate, electronic noise that causes discomfort until one dives deeper with multiple listens. Whereas Stevens’ masterful 2010 record “The Age of Adz” was somewhat divisive for long-time fans, with its experimental and electronic influences, the new record finds uniformity in its computerized instrumentation. Tracks like “Die Happy” and “Gilgamesh” are glitchy, atmospheric and downright mesmerizing. “Video Game” and the album’s opener, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” are electronic anthems. Despite “The Ascension” being a distinct departure from his folk origins, it has a unique draw to it, particularly due to its coverage of contemporary issues in a relatable yet heart-wrenching fashion.
From climate change to political injustice and everything in between, Stevens tries to create sense from chaos in an honest and simplistic fashion. Stevens has continuously illustrated that he has experienced quite a bit of suffering throughout his life. Yet, because he is in touch with his pain, there is a kind of warmth that accompanies it — a quality that binds this album altogether. “Ativan,” the seventh track on the album, is an indication of Stevens’ suffering, both in the title itself and in the simple yet sincere songwriting. Throughout the lyrics of this song, Sufjan describes his sense of increasing anxiety and stress, and a turn towards Ativan, a drug prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, to “tranquilize, sanitize and revise” him. He appears to struggle with finding meaning in his life, instead opting to “mind his own business” and “do the best [he] can” with “Ativan, [his] leading woman.” “Video Game” has a similar effect as a combative track about social media and commercialism and its lasting effects on our soul. It is a call for authenticity from Stevens, emphasizing the importance of being true to yourself — “I wanna be my own redeemer,” he sings with an inspiring conviction.
For the first time since 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens’ latest release is compelling, vulnerable and promising from start to finish. There is a stark contrast between “Carrie & Lowell” and “The Ascension,” however. Whereas “Carrie & Lowell” captured Stevens’ pained relationship with his mother, the new LP has Stevens attentively looking at the chaos of the current world, our collective experience of it and his loss of faith. It’s quite interesting to ponder Stevens’ shift in mindset over our nation and his faith while looking back at his discography. While previous works like “Illinois” and “Michigan” found wonder in his country, “The Ascension” laments on how the country has disenfranchised the individual of faith, hope and spirituality.
Stevens’ new outlook is made clear in the epic 13-minute closing track “America,” where Stevens repeatedly pleads to God “don’t do to me what you did to America” and “I have loved you, I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.” Stevens also seems to admit to losing faith in the American dream, worshipped by many across the country, as part of an American “religion” that seems to have disappeared with everything that has happened in recent memory.
Despite the underlying gloom that encapsulates so much of this album, there are also proclamations of compassion and optimism for the future. On “Goodbye To All That” and “Sugar,” Stevens looks back on everything he’s contemplated in this album and decides to finally take a stand. It’s at this point he realizes that God can’t — or won’t — come down and save him everytime something goes wrong. Instead, he has to take life into his own hands and fix it himself. “Sugar” then continues that sentiment, centering around positivity and improvement, becoming stronger and becoming your own person, not defined by anyone else. All of this culminates in “The Ascension” and “America,” tracks which are indications of Sufjan losing his faith in God and our country while also gaining a newfound faith in himself.
The conclusion of this powerful record seems to give the message that in a time of great uncertainty. That is, in our current lives amid a pandemic, political turmoil and the struggle for racial justice, it is important to at least be certain about one thing — ourselves. “America” ends on a particularly solemn note, instilling a sense of longing and an unfulfilled hope for a better world. Yet it also seems that Stevens is encouraging listeners to be the change needed in the world. If your God and country are failing you, what else can you do but improve your world for yourself?