ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens- ‘The Ascension’

Words by Emily Hollitt – {Malina Claire}

Deep vocals, ethereal synths and fast-paced drums open ‘The Ascension’, sounding what I’d imagine a hymn for cyborgs would sound like. Enthralling from the very first second Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse perfectly sets the precedent for what to expect for the rest of the album. The drums are reminiscent of Björk and church music, creating a unique slice of experimental pop. The song is constantly changing, shifting and growing, never necessarily going where you’d expect, but going exactly where you need it to be. The record is a change from Sufjan Steven’s older work, following-up his 2015 release ‘Carrie and Lowell’ yet juxtaposing the soft, folk timbre of that album with something completely different. Although, Stevens is no stranger from experimenting with genres, exploring a baroque pop on 2005’s ‘Illinois’ or the largely instrumental Electronic/Dance stylings of ‘Aporia’, released in collaboration with his stepfather Lowell Barnes.

Run Away With Me is soft and romantic in it’s timbre, with gentle electronic drums and his voice singing gently. “And I say love, come run away with me. Sweet, falling remedy. Come run away with me” he repeats. Atmospheric guitars creep through the electronic basis of the song, adding to the overall atmosphere. The mix of live and synthetic instruments blend brilliantly to create a beautiful slow-burner. Video Game is a standout on the record for me, and one that I have played on loop since it came out as a single. A quirky pop track detailing the life of the modern celebrity that he rejects- not wanting to adhere to the social media addiction where likes equal success, and not the art itself. “I don’t want to be your personal Jesus. I don’t want to play your video game.” The music video ironically features and was choreographed by Jalaiah Harmon, the creator of the Tik Tok Renegade dance.

Heavily panned and quick-paced drums open Lamentations before distorted vocals kick in, giving the track a very disorienting feel and sound. “I am the future. Define the future”. The pace strips back entirely as Tell Me You Love Me is introduced as a soft piano riff opens the track. Deep bass and drums introduce with his soft, inviting vocals. “My love, I feel myself unravelling. Tell me you love me anyway”. He calls back to the title track of his 2015 release Carrie and Lowell with he line “My love, I feel the darkness on my back”, referencing his older lines about Erebus, an ancient Greek deity personified by shadow and darkness he used to represent sorrow and grief. “I’m gonna love you everyday” he ends. The production feels joyous and complete, exploring human love and connection despite adversity in such a beautiful way. “I wanna die happy” are the only lyrics of following track aptly named Die Happy. The production moves between disjointed darkness and a gentle lightness before erupting into a large outro section halfway through the song. In Ativan, the instrumental is somehow slow yet rushed and his vocal delivery feels dragged along and almost uncomfortable. The anxiety present in the track was not accidental, named after the anxiety drug itself. “Tranquilise me, sanitize me, Ativan”. The song closes in a distorted, robotic mess before evolving into an orchestral and intricately designed cinematic string arrangement.

“I wanna love you until the earth runs through it. I wanna love you, and I’m definitely gonna do it” he sings in each chorus of Ursa Major, a song referencing the constellation of the same name. ‘The Great Bear’ constellation he references ties in with the themes of God and his love of God in the song, equating the star formation as a physical representation of God.

“At the risk of feeling Confucian. I saw your body and I saw that I liked it. Let’s keep it simple, give me absolution. Let’s take a walk in the circle of life”

He sings, combining the themes of religion, philosophy and human nature to describe his own sexuality and attractions.

Describing the supposed oldest piece of literature of the same name, Gilgamesh, which revolves around Gilgamesh and his failed quest for immortality. “Oh my heart will leave you now, surrender. Oh my heart receives you now. With arms full of harvest”. The song battles with the realities of love and death, using the themes found in the original story to dissect these themes for himself. Death Star is a dark, industrial pop song, playing out like a Sci-Fi movie and covering the themes of climate change and the terrifying realities due to humanities reliance and technology and mistreatment of the Earth. “Vandalise what you create. It’s your own damn head on the plate” he sings.

Named after American writer Joan Didion’s 1967 essay of the same name, Goodbye To All That is a hopeful song about moving on. Equating the title phrase to ‘Thank U, Next!’ or ‘Keep Calm and Carry On!’ as he stated in an interview with The Quietus Magazine, Stevens beautifully summarises hitting a low point and finding the strength to grow from it and move past it. “Well, I’m just glad I’m still alive, for what hasn’t killed me will make me stronger”. His harmonies are tight and choir-like, almost sounding like a support network in the way they are sung and presented.

“Is that the weight of the world on your back? Surrender with that colourful flag” he sings in Sugar, a song about his longing for Godliness and purity. The song is simple and inviting in its production- gentle and comforting. To Asthmatic Kitty he said the song is “on the surface, a string of cliches 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”. “All the shit they try to feed us. Don’t drink the poison or they’ll defeat us. This is the right time” he sings. Using runs and forms similar to much of traditional English folk music (the same forms and melodic themes rife in the Lord of the Rings soundtrack or any somewhat medieval themed movie or TV show) title track The Ascension furthers his religious referencing to summarise his feelings towards life and death, and what his own ascension may look like.

“And now it strikes me far too late again that I was asking far too much of everyone around me… I thought I could change the world around me, I thought I could change the world for best. I thought I was called in convocation. I thought I was sanctioned and blessed”

The song plays out like an outline for reflection, regret and reconciliation of his life, as he is reborn and ascended with his new perspectives and ideals from the pain that he has risen from and described throughout the record.

12-and-a-half-minute epic America closes the album, which he describes in his own words “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”. Released in time with the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests (a movement which he has openly voices support), the song critiques the toxicity that prevails throughout America’s broken culture and miss-alignment of thoughts causing pain and suffering. “Don’t do to me what you did to America” he sings, “Don’t look at me like I’m acting hysterical”. “I have loved you, I have grieved. I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe” he sings about his wilting faith amidst all the pain in the world. The record ends on an airy, atmospheric synthetic chord, finishing exactly how it began.

“My objective for this album was simple: 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 simple. Keep it moving.”

Says Sufjan on the record. And he achieved exactly that. ‘The Ascension’ plays out like it is completely intimate yet entirely interpersonal; introspective but yet relatable; critical yet still non-confrontational. Through experimental production, the album plays out like something you don’t just listen to, but you feel and you experience. Best listened to from start to finish ‘The Ascension’ is a standout in Sufjan’s already breathtaking discography.

‘The Ascension’ is out now on Asthmatic Kitty via Inertia Music

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With thanks to Inertia Music

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