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24 September 2020

Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension: high-concept catastrophe music

On his disappointing eighth album, the American musician’s queries about faith, God and the state of the world are far too vague to be enlightening.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Does believing in God offer any reassurances in this world? The American multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens may have named his eighth solo studio album The Ascension, but on it, amid spluttering synths and his trademark whispered vocals, his divine faith is audibly less stable than ever before.

Faith and faithlessness have always been major themes in Stevens’ work. Since the early noughties, when a PR stunt had fans believe he was planning on writing an album for each of the 50 US states (just 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois emerged before he made clear it was only ever a “promotional gimmick”), the songwriter has been looked to as some sort of indie prophet, a new kind of American saviour who is both God-fearing and liberal-minded.

There is a mythological pull around this softly spoken Midwesterner, who has been known to don a pair of angel wings onstage and has written openly about his Christian faith, but who otherwise keeps his private life undisclosed. Yet the earnestness with which Stevens explores his religious beliefs in song has allowed him to refract life’s heaviest topics – death, the afterlife, grief – through his own personal lens, lending an intimacy to such weighty themes. Stevens’ music sits close – and listening to it often feels like prying, until you realise you know comparatively little about his life.

Stevens’ long-held querying of humanity’s purpose has, on The Ascension, turned apocalyptic. “They will terrorise us/With new confusion,” he sings on “Run Away With Me”, a beautiful drifter of a track, its gentle electronica reminiscent of the devastatingly romantic songs he wrote for Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. Here, over a meandering guitar melody, he offers a solution to the pain of this world – “And I will bring you life/A new communion” – but this fantasy is one of very few hopeful messages on the 80-minute-long record.

For the most part, The Ascension leans into high-concept catastrophe. Its sonic sensibilities are most akin to the stuttering electronica of The Age of Adz (2010), with “Ativan” filling up with reverberating vocals and decaying synths, and “Ursa Major” flirting with a Flaming Lips-like playfulness.

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Many more of the songs on this 15-track album pass by in a heady fog, their melodies lacklustre, their structures tied to a nauseating repetition that is neither instrumentally innovative nor emotionally stimulating. This is particularly disappointing when two previous Stevens albums – Illinois, with its ornate and original orchestration, and Carrie & Lowell (2015), an intimate acoustic tribute to his mother and step-father – remain hallmarks of maximalist and minimalist instrumentation years after their release.

Instead, on an album he recorded almost completely by himself on his computer, with a drum machine and a few synthesisers, Stevens succumbs to obviousness. He gets caught in a wheel, repeating “I wanna die happy” again and again as an uninteresting synth melody bubbles beneath him, while pop-driven tracks “Video Game” and “Sugar” are twee and reliant on lazy rhyme schemes. “I am the future/Define the future,” he insists, then probes, on “Lamentations”, spinning words into meaningless refrains.

In relying only on genericism – who hasn’t, in hazy approximations, thought about the end of the world, the state of humanity, the despair of mankind? – Stevens lets these songs drift with vagueness. He writes in the first person, but the ways in which his narrative tone switches from track to track, from blasé and imprecise to bossy and impatient, doesn’t establish any recognisable character, and is overbearing rather than endearing.

To read Stevens’ lyrics literally is to suggest he has somewhat given up – with hope, with God, with believing in a greater world. “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything,” he admits over lullaby-like piano and burgeoning percussion on “Tell Me You Love Me”. On “America”, the album’s 12-minute-long lead single, a muted symphony with a singalong chorus, it’s, “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.”

It’s a shame that it is only here, on this much-inflated record’s final track, that Stevens’ core revelation is articulated with grace and harmonic intelligence. It’s a further shame that when it comes to it, overachiever Stevens’ solutions to universal dread – “Don’t look at me like I’m acting hysterical”; “Don’t do to me what you did to America” – are no more helpful than those the rest of us would muster up.

The Ascension is out on 25 September (Asthmatic Kitty)

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