Most people know Sufjan Stevens as the guy with the ambitious goal to create an album for every state. After tackling only Michigan and Illinois, the project is no more. On his newest album, The Age of Adz—the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2005 album Illinois—Stevens seems to be starting anew, as the sound of banjos have been replaced by the whirls and robotic sounds of synthesizers and drum machines.
The simplest way to describe the sound of The Age of Adz is that it’s incredibly complex and layered. Each song is so dense that on each subsequent listen, something new becomes apparent. It’s also immediately obvious that it’s something different from his previous works. There’s neither the grandiose instrumentation of Illinois nor the bare, banjo-driven sound of 2004’s Seven Swans. For a listener familiar with Stevens’ past works, the richness of the songs and electronic orchestration can be overwhelming upon first listen.
The album begins with “Futile Devices,” which is actually very reminiscent of the orchestral pop and lyrical storytelling Stevens is known for. Stevens’ new sound begins to emerge in the second track, “Too Much.” It immediately counteracts the lull of the previous song and introduces the new multidimensional, electronic sound.
The third track, “Age of Adz,” is one of the album’s standouts. It features orchestral sounds combined with soaring vocals, electronic cacophony, and explosive moments that propel the song until the tempo slows, the mood shifts, and Stevens’ voice comes to the forefront.
The album continues in this same vein, but a few songs show the kinks yet to be worked out in Stevens’ new sound. “Now That I’m Older” is a slow, meditative track that’s overwhelmed with its multilayered vocals. “Bad Communication” also focuses on vocals, with sporadic, futuristic electronic sounds not unlike a video game.
The album concludes with “Impossible Soul.” At 25 minutes long, it seems less like a single song and more like a series of orchestral movements, perhaps reflective of his 2009 The BQE project, which itself is organized into interludes and movements.
The song begins slowly. Layered electronic sounds and vocalizations creep into the track and suddenly take over, but the lyrics urge the listener to not be distracted. Perhaps this is a meditation on the album as a whole: The electronic sounds aren’t meant to detract from the music, but simply represent a directional shift for the artist.
The song then evolves into something completely unexpected from Stevens: It becomes an auto-tuned production. As the most heavily electronic portion of the album, it leads to a portion of the song that is almost danceable.
However, at approximately the 22-minute mark, the electronic sounds are replaced with soft vocals. The track concludes in this familiar sound reminiscent of his older works. This, combined with the opening track of “Futile Devices,” perhaps indicates an attempt of continuity both within the album and with his body of work as a whole.
The Age of Adz often seems to be a self-reflective album for Stevens. Instead of taking abstract historical details and twisting them into stories of his own experience, Stevens is quite direct and intimate in his lyrics.
Stevens has never distanced himself from grandiose themes of religion and humanity in his works, and The Age of Adz is no different. In fact, it may be more explicit. The songs reveal an artist with internal conflict, and the complex sound effectively mirrors this notion. On “I Want To Be Well,” he sings that he “wants to be well” just before asserting he’s “not f—king around” a total of 16 times.
The Age of Adz shows an artist entering a new phase in his career. The use of inorganic sounds seems diametrically opposed to the amount of folksy honesty Stevens seems to embody. The three-year gap between full-length albums that Stevens spent working on other projects might be an indication of his need to experiment and hone his shift in vision and musical style
The Age of Adz is an album that occasionally falters, but for the most part, it boasts a collection of quality songs. Its most important quality, though, is that it shows innovation, experimentation, and ingenuity. It is admirable when an artist deserts the sound his listeners have come to expect and asserts his own identity.