With every one of his albums, Sufjan Stevens builds a temple out of an idea. Whether tackling big concepts or zooming into intimate scenes, the singer-songwriter has a knack for immersing the listener into intricate worlds and revealing the wrenching beauty that lies within. And though his output in the 2010s was defined by his last proper solo album and most heartbreakingly personal release to date, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, the collaborative projects he has been involved in since have either been conceptually-driven or otherwise outward-looking: in 2017, we got Planetarium, an album literally about the Solar System, which was followed earlier this year by Aporia, a collection of improvisatory meditations recorded with his stepfather, Lowell Brams.
In that context, his sprawling, 80-minute new album comes as less than a surprise. But it also feels different, fusing elements from Stevens’ career that so far seem to have existed on separate planes: the lyrics are by turns soul-searching and banal, while the mood shifts from intimate to distant without breaking the illusion of coherence. It’s arguably Stevens’ boldest and most ambitious effort yet – and that says a lot for an artist whose crowning achievements include The Age of Adz and Illinois – but it also feels directionless and murky, which is kind of the point: The Ascension is comfortable luxuriating in its own grand ideas, as ambivalent as they may be, in the hopes that they might unfold into something revelatory.
Thankfully, they often do. Opener ‘Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse’ is nothing short of spell-binding, introducing the listener to the nuanced electronic textures that permeate the album. As the story goes, Stevens was kicked out of his apartment after touring Carrie & Lowell, and could only record with a drum machine and whatever he could plug onto his computer; the result is an album whose nature is deceptively simple, almost like a bedroom project, but mined to the point where the sounds expand into their own universe. ‘Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse’ best exemplifies this approach, but by comparison, tracks like ‘Ativan’ and ‘Death Star’ come off as meandering excursions with little to no purpose.
Though it is undeniably dense and at times exhausting, The Ascension mostly eschews the detailed storytelling and introspective lyrics that have characterized much of Stevens’ songwriting in the past. Instead, these songs circle around tired clichés until they’re either stripped of their meaning or take on a new resonance. This puts a lot of weight on the strength of each individual hook: ‘Run Away with Me’ and ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ pull this off successfully, their titular refrains serving as a form of escape; ‘Die Happy’ stretches this approach to ominous effect, the line “I wanna die happy” reverberating with the same kind of poignancy as the infamous “We’re all gonna die” from ‘Fourth of July’. By contrast, ‘Sugar’ loses most of its impact during its near-8-minute search for some kind of sweet relief, shimmying along without reaching any satisfying conclusion or climax.
In the end, the album’s most memorable moments are the ones that trade ambiguous lyrics and mood-heavy soundscapes in favour of thoughtful examinations of culture and Stevens’ own place in it. “I don’t care if everybody else is into it/ I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain/ I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theatre,” he declares on the pop-inflected ‘Video Game’, expressing a natural antipathy for the kind of fame that led to him getting his Elliott Smith moment on the stage of the Academy Awards after being nominated for his Call Me By Your Name song ‘Mystery of Love’. “I don’t wanna be the center of the universe,” he continues, which is fitting for an album where his vocal presence often fades into the background, but also because, as it becomes evident, he’d rather build his own.
As wearisome as this album can get, Stevens proves that shooting for the stars can result in some of the most rewarding compositions he has ever penned, even if it takes a while to get there. The title track and penultimate song on the album is anguished and self-reflective in a way most of the album isn’t: “I was acting like a believer/ When I was just angry and depressed,” he confesses, then goes on to detail that crisis of faith on the masterful ‘America’. “I have loved you, I have grieved/ I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he sings, then begs, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” If The Ascension feels like something new for Stevens, it’s not because it’s hefty, or electronic, or all over the place. It’s because the temple appears to have fallen.