Review: Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Tuesday, October 13th, 2020 at 1:13 PM
Review: Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension by Teddy Rankin

Sufjan Stevens’ newest release, “The Ascension,” is an artistic achievement. That being said, the abstract electronic nature of this album may be off-putting to casual listeners. Clocking in at 80 minutes, the collection of 15 songs is a relentless barrage of mind-numbing, monotonal and experimental noise, curiously intertwined with Stevens' recognizable vocals and personal stories.

Stevens has been a darling of the indie scene since the early 2000s. He is primarily known for his fingerpicking acoustic folk mastery, as demonstrated on previous albums like “Michigan” and “Illinois.” He’s dabbled in electronic maximalism as well, like on 2010’s “The Age of Adz.” “The Ascension” builds upon Stevens’ prior endeavors and creates a totally new and chaotic sound that appropriately matches life in 2020. 

The opening track, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” sets the tone for the album, introducing the rapid compressed drum beats and ambient synth stabs that permeate the rest of the tracks. The song’s outro is similar to The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” – a crescendo of dissonance that climbs across your nerves before it finally resolves. 

On tracks like “Video Game” and “Sugar,” Stevens incorporates a touch of melody that reveals a more recognizable bedroom pop sound. Like the rest of the album, these songs include vocal effects that echo and sample Stevens’ buttery voice, building up a nest of layered sound that fills out the space. Stacked on top of that are twinkly synths that are reminiscent of Ben Gibbard’s one-album electronic group, The Postal Service. 

Stevens’ opus is the closing track and lead single, “America.” The 12-and-a-half-minute epic is a farewell letter to organized religion; in the first verse, the 45-year-old songwriter pens, “I have loved you, I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.” A large portion of the song is a pensive orchestration that occasionally repeats the chorus, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” 

“The Ascension” makes for excellent background music while studying, but if you think too hard about it, it may induce a headache. The first few times listening through the album, it may seem busy and irritating. However, after spending more time with it, I’ve learned to appreciate the nuance and careful details that must have been painstaking to create. With every listen, I find something new that I didn’t catch before. Stevens’ commitment to this unique and artistic soundscape is impressive.

Teddy Rankin is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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