Sufjan Stevens has a lot to live up to.
He is after all the artist who at one point was planning to make an album for each of the 50 states and claims to be able to fold a fitted sheet.
Superpowers aside, his music has earned him a following that loves his folk-soaked, layered sound that is both lyrically and sonically beautiful.
His latest album ‘The Age of Adz’ (released Oct. 12) destroys that in the best way possible.
Drawing inspiration from a disillusionment with the current world as a theme, Stevens takes his sound in a totally new direction.
Gone are the banjo strings and quiet harmonicas of his earlier work, and in their place are hyper-produced digital effects.
Instruments are drenched in pseudo-futuristic tones and the album’s vocals seem to be more derivatives of a hard drive than a musically inclined 35-year-old from Detroit.
In spite of all the changes this record somehow still manages to sound unmistakably like a Sufjan Stevens release.
Every facet of The Age of Adz (pronounced ‘odds’) is stunning.
The disc progresses and evolves like a concept album with a story that is driven by sound rather than plot.
On the first track, “Futile Devices,” Stevens quietly provides a poignantly dead-on description of a love that is beyond words, “I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard/Words are futile devices” that would not at all seem out of place on any of his earlier releases.
But, the literal buzz and explosion of electronic sound that leads into track two, “Too Much,” makes it clear that this album is in new territory.
Each subsequent song is more closely tied to the new sound and technology than the last.
Track eight, “Vesuvius,” sounds as if its backbeat is a computer’s failing pulse, and the following song ,“All For Myself,” has a vocal sample taken from 2005’s Illinois album digitized and run backwards repeating throughout.
This all builds to the climactic final song, “Impossible Soul,” a 25 minute epic that runs the same sonic theme as the whole album, but in reverse.
The song contains multiple sections of full singing and instrumentation broken up by sudden bursts of electronics that fade in and out. With each passing section there is an increasing use/emphasis of Stevens’ new sound.
This peaks at the 12 minute mark with a verse sung through the most powerful and legitimate use of Auto-Tune I have ever heard.
From that point on the electronic influence slowly wanes and is totally removed for the last three minutes when the album comes full-circle as Stevens sings the final notes of the record in his more recognizable, but still beautiful, style.
As a whole this record is a triumph in every sense of the word.
The ability to shift to a vastly different overall experience without losing any of his former familiarity indicates an artist at the top of his game who is confident in his ability to go in new directions without giving up on what he started with.
Stevens has drastically changed his approach to making and presenting music and has come away with an incredibly powerful album that is completely new and true to his roots all at once.