album review

What’s Left of America for Sufjan Stevens to Dream About?

Sufjan calls The Ascension his protest album, but it’s also the closest thing to pop music he’s ever made. Photo: Kris Connor/FilmMagic

Once upon a time, winsome, hopeful Michigander Sufjan Stevens became one of the finest songwriters of his generation by delving into the sweeping topography and unique and sometimes peculiar local culture of Middle America, tracing the fall from industrial-era prominence of cities like Flint and Detroit on 2003’s Michigan, and recounting unforgettable youthful experiences in Decatur and the Mississippi Palisades on 2006’s Illinois. Coupled with his bookish attention to history, Stevens’s fey vocals and twee arrangements suggested an accomplished multimedia class project, a whiz kid wrapping his head around the fullness of America. Stevens’s “50 States Project” ended abruptly, though, such was the restlessness of his interests. When he wasn’t making concept albums about American states, Stevens made delicate banjo and guitar songs stuffed with religious allegory, dabbled in electronics on a collection of compositions inspired by the Chinese zodiac cycle, and dished out a seemingly endless trove of original Christmas carols and covers. He helped run Asthmatic Kitty, the indie label he co-founded, produced for friends, started supergroups, ran a lively Tumblr covering everything from faith to pop culture and politics, and created a film, album, and live show about the decaying New York expressway joining downtown Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens. His method is ever-changing, but his drive always seems to simply share and appreciate beauty.

In most of these endeavors, we have experienced Stevens as an overarching curating eye through which the vastness of America as a landscape is pondered alongside people’s individual journeys across it. His catalogue is a needlepoint tapestry, a series of vibrant strokes up close that reveal an interconnectedness as you step back, and what looks like random shapes and colors becomes identifiable patterns. Still, the man himself can feel far away and unknowable. Fans pore over lyrics and dispatches for clues about the life of the writer, obsessing over ambiguities and trying to parse autobiographical narratives from clever bits of storytelling. A Facebook page titled “Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay or About God?” studies the visceral physicality of Stevens’s songs about faith in boorish terms; these days, mystery is seen as a challenge to the enterprising internet citizen when it used to be a concerted act of creating space between artist and audience. Either because of this or in spite of it, Stevens’s art has become less abstract. 2015’s Carrie & Lowell processed grief from the loss of his mother to cancer by examining childhood memories and adult emotional distress. Although 2017’s Planetarium — a collaborative album with composer Nico Muhly, drummer James McAlister, and the National’s Bryce Dessner — deals in astronomy and ancient Roman myths, its pitting of love against warfare lands on the main theme of the year it was released.

At the top of the July Fourth weekend this summer, Sufjan Stevens released the 12-minute epic “America,” braiding disparate threads from earlier works into its postcard artwork (see: Michigan and Illinois), sensual faithfulness (see: Seven Swans), winding song lengths, and flair for synths-and-drum programming (see: The Age of Adz and Enjoy Your Rabbit). “America” is a protest anthem disguised as a conversation with God. The refrain — “Don’t do to me what you did to America” — hit hard during a weekend where some Americans pondered sitting Independence Day out in a year that’s been a flash point for long-simmering racial injustices; while others watched the president break social-distancing protocol in a campaign rally at Mount Rushmore, where he told supporters that protests around the country against police brutality and Confederate monuments were “designed to overthrow the American Revolution.” The current political moment is unique in the speed at which schisms have become chasms, but the nation’s triumphs have always been undercut by a grisly capacity for violence, one that is also present in Sufjan’s states albums, where you’re as likely to hear a song about a beautiful monument or stretch of land as one about a world-famous serial killer, or an interlude memorializing the pain of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow to famous Abe, who was institutionalized in her grief over the loss of most of her immediate family. “America” foregrounds a message that always lurked in the margins: The place might look nice, but it was paid for in blood.

Like Carrie & Lowell, which returned Sufjan to his folk roots while presenting a subtle shift in his approach to songwriting, this fall’s The Ascension is both a slight return and a bit of an evolution. Shimmering synth tones nod to the glitchier moments on Adz and to the focus on tasty textures Stevens and his stepfather Lowell Brams pursued on last year’s collaborative instrumental album Aphoria, a move anyone who liked last year’s Pride single “Love Yourself” or the remixes on the 2017 mixtape The Greatest Gift could see coming from deep. What’s different now is that the arrangements are much starker and more to the point than the artist’s earlier forays into electronic music, and the lyrics cut to the heart of his disillusionment with the American Dream, while shaking off his taste for subtle, referential messaging. Sufjan calls The Ascension his protest album, but it’s also the closest thing to pop music he’s ever made. You won’t spend years fracking for submerged meaning in “Die Happy” or “Video Game” or “Run Away with Me,” although on “Gilgamesh” he’s back to his old tricks, naming one of his horniest songs ever after the Mesopotamian hero of myth that feistier scholars believe to have been in love with his male best friend, Enkidu. In songs like this, Stevens weaponizes the boyishness of his voice, giving an element of shock to the more lurid lines, a trick he picked up on the last album, where his whisper softened the harrowing details of death and grief.

The Ascension wears simplicity and directness well until it doesn’t. “Die Happy” repeats its main line — “I wanna die happy” — enough times for the surprise to wear off, dropping a massive beat in the middle that makes the whole thing feel like wry gallows humor. Elsewhere, repetition can be cloying. “Death Star” is pleasant but not profound; “Tell Me You Love Me” drags on a little too long before an intense, life-affirming coda. The highs are stratospheric if you have the patience to wait for the payoff. “Landslide” takes off like space travel at the chorus; “Ativan” takes four minutes to reach a euphoric dance break. The Ascension is sort of like spending a night out in a club to blow off steam after a bad day; it’s death and gloom until the right beat hits, and your focus shifts to finding someone to provide comfort through the night. The contrast suggests companionship is the solution to fears about a fraying republic and a planet on a low boil, but the doomsaying gothic tunes on the front end of the album are more intriguing than most of the songs that land after “Gilgamesh,” save for the title track, where the faith journey that has long animated Stevens’s art and philosophy comes under the same nihilistic gaze the album otherwise reserves for politics.

“The Ascension” is a moment not unlike the chilling Andre 3000 verse on Frank Ocean’s Blonde album (where the Atlanta rap veteran surveys the current state of the culture and wonders aloud why he ever bothered being a perfectionist) — a moment we’re all having while watching virtuous people suffer and die while others party as if nothing is happening; when it really looks like it might be less emotionally expensive to just live for yourself, civic duties be damned: “And now it frightens me, the thought against my chest / To think I was asking for a reason / Explaining why everything’s a total mess.” Stevens twists the knife further as he goes: “I thought I could change the world around me / I thought I could change the world for best / I thought I was called in convocation / I thought I was sanctified and blessed.” He finds no resolution in the end for these concerns. The song floats away on voices singing, “What now?” But the answer to the question of this Job-like test of faith is that goodness isn’t transactional behavior you participate in as one might stockpile work in expectation of eventual compensation, a mistake Christian theologists make when they sell the faith exclusively as a ticket out of Hell. You do it in hopes of making things easier for those who come behind you, in hopes of being remembered for what you built while you were here. Death catches us all eventually, but if you play your cards right, you touch enough people so that your memory outlasts your physical form. If you don’t believe in raptures and resurrections, that’s a kind of immortality.

What’s Left of America for Sufjan Stevens to Dream About?