Five years ago, Sufjan Stevens crooned intimate stories of love and loss on “Carrie and Lowell.” On “The Ascension,” he howls for escape.
He does so from the very first track, his voice sounding unusually small and dry as he pleads for “an offer [he] cannot refuse,” begging to see “the face of the radical dream.” The instrumental is anthemic, building more and more heat until, at 4:30, it sounds like a cacophony of hostile alarm clocks building to a height of auditory discomfort — and then, just as you’re clenching your fists and wishing it would stop, it finally resolves into a pleasant reverberating vocal. It’s a moment that reflects the album’s titular motif, “Ascension” — an upward build promising release at its ending, but getting overwhelmingly tense on the way there.
The best moments on this album create this same palpable sense of longing for ascension. On songs like the uniquely creepy “Ativan” or the mournful “America,” Stevens makes it clear that the state of things is unsustainable, both internally and in the world around him; tension is building and something has got to give. So he rejects his old instrumental style of ethereal sound effects and acoustic guitars for a barrage of blocky synths and beats, replacing his former stillness with restless action. Structurally, he embraces pop music, with more than one song on this album building up into bombastic, dancey breakdowns. His vocals take some strange turns, too, yelping “I’m gonna love you!” on the song “Ursa Major,” then sounding like a small, anxious animal shivering in a room’s dark corner as he begs for drug-induced relief on “Ativan.”
Lyrically, Stevens warns us against the many indoctrinations responsible for our catastrophic present moment, declaring early on that he doesn’t want to “play your video game.” He warns against religious self-righteousness on “The Ascension,” drugged stupor on “Ativan,” self-destructive environmental egotism on “Death Star” and nationalism on “America.” These are forms of religion that have led people to blindness, perhaps even Stevens himself, whose career launched with an infamous patriotic project to write an album about each of the 50 states — yet, as he announces on “America,” “I no longer believe.”
The only place in which he finds satisfying consolation is love. Love is the rare sunshine which breaks through the storm cloud of “The Ascension,” which sounds cheesy, but Stevens leans into it. He sings in cliches on “Sugar,” proclaims “I’m gonna love you anyway” over the booming closing synths of “Let Me Love You,” unabashedly flirts on “Landslide” — “Let’s keep it simple, give me absolution / Let’s take a walk in the circle of life.” I’m underwhelmed by the lyrical platitudes on these love songs, though I find it interesting that Stevens’ addressee constantly oscillates between God and the listener, blurring the boundaries between romantic or spiritual love. Maybe Stevens’ point is that they’re equal — that devotion, whether to God or to others, is the way out of our unsustainable and self-destructive hunger.
I like listening to Sufjan rail against America’s “splendor of machinery,” and his confessions of being “caught in a landslide” of love are uninteresting but bearable. Ultimately, I’m most compelled by the album’s moments of naked confusion and struggle to persevere — his declaration that “I do the best with what I am” on “Ativan,” that “I want to die happy” on “Die Happy,” that “now that it’s too late to have died a young man / well, I’m just glad that I’m still alive” on “Goodbye to All That” — and of course, his plea of “What now?” at the conclusion of “The Ascension.” When these moments of weakness and uncertainty arrive, I’m reminded that, behind all the synthesizers, Sufjan Stevens is the same confused and hopeful kid he’s always been, looking for rescue while learning to survive.
Daniel Blokh | firstname.lastname@example.org