An ambitious yet challenging album that demands a lot from the listener but gives depth and meaning in return.
For those of you familiar with Sufjan Stevens, you will know that he is not afraid of a conceptual mega-album and The Ascension is no different. In a similar vein to his two most recent albums, Aporia and The Decalogue, this collection is filled with multi-faceted and complicated layering, synths, beats and intense climaxes which, at times, verge into a state of panic.
The lyrics are much more demanding than previous albums. From the off, the listener is asked to “Move me” as “There is no time for innocence”, with Stevens half begging, half forcing the listener to “Make me an offer I cannot refuse”. These lyrics starkly contrast with the acoustic melancholy found in previous albums such as Carrie and Lowell and Seven Swans, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is certainly intention behind it – this album is a retaliation against pop culture. These songs seem to carry the anxiety and anger of 2020 within them; the listener absorbed in the noisiness of life and a sense of charged emotions.
The album is anti-pop, a protest against A-Listers and American culture. In ‘Video Game’, the third track, Stevens slates US consumerism, stating “I don’t care if everybody else is into it / I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain” and “All you want is what the resumé tells you”. He evens says “I don’t want to be your personal Jesus”, perhaps a reference to his open Christianity and the fact that many of his songs, and even whole albums (e.g. Seven Swans), involve and are inspired by his faith. His songs have acted as a form of salvation and solace but that does not make him a saviour. The album definitely suggests he has had enough with labels and radios and that, despite his regular efforts to change genre and sound, he is fed up with being typecast as something that he’s not. On the final track, Stevens confesses “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe”, pleading “Don’t do to me what you did to America”. With biting clarity, the listener is left certain that ‘land of opportunity’ is beyond fixing – and Stevens did not miss a beat in releasing the track, ‘America‘, on Independence Day.
I wouldn’t describe The Ascension as especially easy listening, perhaps more like a sea storm in the ears; powerful, beautiful, if not overwhelming. But there is a greatness to it, and the majesty comes, once again, from Stevens’ ability to put everything into a song. Moments of light relief can be found in tracks such as ‘Run Away with Me’, where the music is less noisy but still deeply enveloping. The lyrics here are also a little more hopeful, with less obvious angst against mainstream media, although it is still present. There are highly impressive depths within each song, and there is almost an evocation of Pink Floyd in both the ambitious production and the creation of a whole, continual album, with songs linking together so that the listener is unable to tell one from the other. This is something Stevens has done before, in albums such as Illinois, however when combined with the trance-like nature of The Ascension the effect is much more palpable and the listener is sucked into the warped and crushing world of the album.
The album needs a few listens. It is initially tricky and jarring, and this can be off-putting, especially if you’re more of a fan of his acoustic coming-of-age anthems found in Call Me by Your Name (‘Mystery of Love‘, anyone?). Nevertheless, The Ascension is startling and the messages within it poignant. It may not evoke the sepia-tinged, honey glazed nostalgia of other works, but perhaps that is what we need. This album could be considered a wakeup call.
Header image: Sufjan Stevens. Credit: Evans Richardson via Entertainment Weekly.