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Music Review: Indie Grows Up with New Albums From Belle & Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens, and Antony & the Johnsons

Stevens; Murdoch; Hegarty

With new albums from Sufjan Stevens (The Age of Adz), Belle & Sebastian (Write About Love), and Antony & the Johnsons (Swanlights), this is shaping up to be a big week for the kind of indie I’m tempted to call … “multigenerational.” Is that a nice way of putting it? The less coy option might be to say that these are all artists you can imagine someone asking their college-aged children about after hearing a flattering public-radio profile. But that sounds like an insult, and there’s no reason it should be one. A little grown-folks music never hurt anyone. That’s the whole reason some people like to roll their eyes at it.

Besides: Only one of these releases is very comfy listening, and it makes comfort sound like a pretty noble goal. Belle & Sebastian have been managing that for a while now; clarity and ease are their strong suits. When they first got started, their songs had all the cozy intimacy of a small bedroom, and they were packed with characters and stories — almost as if singer Stuart Murdoch were dreaming up some outside world he didn’t quite have access to. (He did, in fact, spend years homebound with chronic illness.) Since then, the group’s success has made him a lot less like the winsome loners he used to write about. They’ve also turned their music into something more alert and expansive, like the crack band behind a stage revue— and instead of telling the stories of different characters, the group’s various vocalists often sing those characters’ lines, musical-style.

On Belle & Sebastian’s latest, Write About Love, that includes high-profile cameos from the likes of actress Carey Mulligan (singing a chorus on behalf of a bored office worker) and Norah Jones (stopping by for a limp duet with Murdoch). For the most part, though, these songs have found a glossy, comfortable balance between feeling homespun and sounding like a stage production: There’s a little less of the sixties/seventies pastiche of the group’s last LP, and a little more of the eighties' sparkle and shine. That feels like a good thing — it clears space for the band to concentrate on the things it does well. Clarity is still one of those things, and tracks like “I Want the World to Stop” have the old straightforward ease that’s always inspired such devotion in the band’s fans. There’s nothing grand or exciting here, nothing that challenges their best-loved work, but it does sound like the album where they find their way to something pretty adult. You know that calm that comes with age, the ability to just relax and do your own thing with unworried confidence? Suddenly it sounds like Belle & Sebastian have found that.

And if that doesn’t sound super-valuable to you, listen to Sufjan Stevens’s new LP, The Age of Adz, and let me know if it changes your mind at all. It's a little nuts. It’s a left turn from Stevens’s past albums, if not the side work he’s done around them. The bulk of its 75 minutes lurches around on slippery electronic beats, packing the space around them full of detailed orchestration, choral goo, synth buzz, complicated drum edits, splatters of melody, and just generally more ideas per minute than is anywhere near advisable. It’s themed around the apocalyptic visions of a schizophrenic, misogynist, outsider artist; it builds a grand crescendo out of Stevens wailing, “I’m not fucking around!”; it ends with a 25-minute song featuring an Auto-Tune interlude. That should be straight-up nuts, right? And yet Stevens manages to make it come off disappointingly tasteful and restrained, and way less revelatory than you might hope. When the arrangements settle down enough to let the beats and melodies actually work as beats and melodies, The Age of Adz can be gorgeous, even brilliant — and there’s no doubt some of us will have a ball picking through and marveling at the scatter of ideas throughout. But it’s amazing how something this antic can come out feeling stodgy and overupholstered. There’s a confidence to this album, too, but it’s not a quiet one. Belle & Sebastian sound at peace with what they do; Sufjan sounds like he’s getting all dressed up and going to Carnegie Hall to stage an immaculate breakdown.

Antony & the Johnsons are sort of the opposite of Stevens: They make records that are soft, spare, and classically beautiful, but the emotions their songs carry can be a lot more harrowing than anything on Age of Adz. Hegarty’s a hulking, transgendered pianist with a throaty, quavering voice, and he first moved to New York in search of a downtown queer arts scene that was, by the time he arrived, vanishing — chipped away at by the AIDS crisis, by gentrification, by time. (“When I first arrived,” he’s written, “the streets and bars of Manhattan’s East and West Villages were populated by as many ghosts as there were denizens.”) It makes it tempting to hear a lot of his work as an extended elegy — death, absence, and loneliness are always hanging over everything.

But the group’s newest, Swanlights, is shot through with a kind of sunlight that wasn’t around on its predecessors. Maybe it’s the steel-string acoustic guitars, or the punchy horn section that trots through a song called “Thank You for Your Love,” but there’s a lot of brightness and hope on this one, and the themes move forward from the ends of things to the beginnings, to rebirth and love. It starts and ends with Hegarty repeating that “everything is new,” and the most striking track has him imploring ghosts to go forth and find their own place, and snakes to shed their skin and move along. I almost wish this album weren’t being released in October: On some level, it feels a bit like Easter. It sounds like it’s starting to find a peace with the world, rather than being crushed by it.

Which is very … adult, right? All three of these records appeal to an audience whose age range keeps stretching larger, running from bookish teenagers to urbane adults. They manage to feel highbrow and forward-thinking while being sedate, comfortable, and classicist at the same time — the kind of music that makes people feel quietly discerning. Some might find this middlebrow and toothless, but what’s interesting is hearing artists who’ve been pleasing that crowd for years find a way to settle into their various roles: Belle & Sebastian plotting a steady course, Sufjan taking a polite left turn into his own head, Antony finding success and looking out toward some kind of solace.

Photo: Karl Walter/Getty Images, Courtney Biggs, Samir Hussein/Getty Images