Sufjan is a series of contradicting words and actions. Last year, he said, “I definitely feel like the [concept of an] album no longer has any real bearing anymore.” Yet he’s put out two albums in the last three months. Once his ambition was to make a tribute album for each of the 50 states (after producing “Michigan” and “Illinois”); a few years later he said that this was a promotional gimmick. He has worn butterfly wings together with baseball caps at shows. These feature something about the self-conflict that becomes a heavy theme in his most recent full-length, “Age of Adz.”
His latest features a creative reworking after 2005’s “Illinois,” which has been widely hailed among the best of the last decade. There, as with the preceding “Michigan,” he collected regional stories like a girl with bone cancer, a gentle mass murderer, stepmothers and a boy crying in the van—all with gentle curiosity and unique theological insights. Despite its great instrumental range, “Illinois” had the quiet, folky voice of a book reader.
With the opening track of “Age of Adz” (“Futile Devices”), listeners might expect a continuation of these older ideas.
What follows instead is a glitch-heavy smorgasbord of odd electronic techniques. He is obviously drawing from some of the ideas presented in his little-know electronic album, “The Year of the Rabbit.” However strange it may seem, he is actually more controlled here than he was in that 2001 record.
There are familiar sounds that can be referred to: horns, synth, mixed up space sounds, fluttering strings, piano chimes, auto-tune and a chorus that has always been something of a Sufjan staple. But the chaotic arrangement of these parts is, if nothing else, entirely original. Others might call it an overactive product of Sufjan’s overworking aspiration.
That’s exactly what this is, but it works because of Sufjan’s new subject matter: himself. Admittedly, some of this is responding to relationships with other people: “Lover, will you look at me now? I’m dead to you…[but] at least I deserve the respect of a kiss good-bye.” But many of the other songs are introspective, as with the entire “I Want To Be Well.” In the twenty-minute closing track “Impossible Soul,” there is a sort of self-pleading to himself: “don’t be distracted” and “it’s a long life, better pinch yourself.” The lyrics often seem bizarre.
“Age of Adz” is a semi-conceptual record, referencing the sci-fi artwork of Royal Robertson. Robertson was a paranoid schizophrenic whose wife left him after 20 years of marriage. The album artwork consists exclusively of his drawings of robots and mythical creatures, together with little notes that are written stream-of-consciousness. Whatever Sufjan’s personal experiences, Robertson seems like a vehicle to get at some disturbed sentiments.
From Sufjan’s prior “Year of the Rabbit” and his recent work as a producer, we should have guessed that he would not stay in one place. The folk-revivalist in him may be gone in favor of other frantic projects. And with “Age of Adz,” he might be at his most self-aware. While his evolution as an individual and as a musician may be a mystery to us, it is certainly rewarding to patient, curious listeners.