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Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension (Album Review)

Monday, 28 September 2020 Written by Alex Myles

Sufjan Stevens has lost faith in America. This turn of events is all the more profound when you consider the previous work of the singer-songwriter, who painted postcard pictures of his native land with the lo-fi folk of ‘Michigan’ and the opulent concept album ‘Illinois’, the first entries into a supposed ‘50 states project’ that actually turned out to be promotional garble.

Sonically and lyrically, ‘The Ascension’ acts as an amalgam of Stevens’ work to date. The album is primarily electronic, and while there’s room for some orchestration, lush pianos and guitars, sweeping analog synthesisers take centre stage.  This palette underpins Stevens’ somewhat enigmatic lyrics—at turns brutally honest, thematic and laden with nods to ancient history, literature, and Christianity.

Generally, though, Stevens is more forthright. The first track, Make Me an Offer I Can’t Refuse, is a wild start, with electronic timbres that climax at dizzying heights before being upended by a comforting new-age pad.

“Love, come run away with me,” Stevens sings on the following track. It’s another demand, displaying the desire to escape an environment he once cherished.

Disillusionment is also a recurring theme. Video Game is a lament on social media and the constant need to be liked, perhaps stemming from the fact that Stevens is famously shy and has always veered away from the spotlight. 

The 45-year-old has also always had a penchant for a soundtrack, even if that’s unintended. ‘Aporia’, his ambient album released this year in collaboration with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, could easily be mistaken for one, and there are moments of meditative expansion here, like in Die Happy and Ursa Major. 

Conversely, there’s also a seam of ostentatious sonic flourishes, as on Ativan, a song about mental illness, featuring Aphex Twin-style textures. While there are some typically wry and thoughtful lyrics to enjoy, the maximalism becomes bloated and indulgent on an LP that is 80 minutes long and finishes with the 12-minute epic America, where Stevens repeats: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” 

‘The Ascension’ is deeply introspective, with Stevens taking these unusual times to reflect on the minutiae of life in modern America. There’s excellent songwriting and production at play, especially considering the analog instrumentation, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his more natural, string-based compositions.

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