Thereís a trade-off. On Sufjan Stevenís latest album, The Age of Adz ó an album obviously not following in the footsteps of the faux-50 states project ó there is no gimmicky aftertaste, no Wes Anderson upper-class preciousness like there was on Illinois. (Not to slight that album, which was, at times, breathtaking and gorgeous, but which ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own scope.) But in losing that preciousness, thereís nothing immediately gripping, nothing as catchy as say, ďCome On, Feel the Illinois!Ē
At the same time, The Age of Adz is a much more interesting work, thereís more to it, and itís deeper. Think about someone like Paul Thomas Anderson shedding some of his quirks for There Will Be Blood. He was an amazing director before, but some kind of exponential leap was taken with that film: not simply spatially and narratively complex, but temporally and emotionally. The same thing here. Stevens leaves the impersonal aside ó the stories and middlebrow pretension that made him appeal to Jonathan Franzen fans and NPR listeners. If anything, itís a testament to his ability as a songwriter that thereís more to his songs than simply what can be taken as fodder for that middlebrow pretension ó the visceral feeling and emotion beyond the cutesy crap. Perhaps all of it appealed to Stevens, perhaps he was simply wrapping the more interesting bits in palatable outsides. Either way, thereís a compelling tension between the ďaw shucks,Ē homespun, fist-on-chin preciousness and the complex compositions and complex emotions.
A tension which has worked out to Stevensí benefit. The Age of Adz is more satisfying as a singular, coherent album. The songs make more sense together, the orchestration doesnít feel disconnected from the album. If one can think of Michigan and Illinois as Stevens futzing around trying to understand what he wanted aesthetically, The Age of Adz is him confidently declaring it. Musically, itís the dialectical transformation of everything heís done before: the electronics, the orchestration, the quiet moments are all here but are not like they were before, as if transformed through that assuredness. And if nothing is as immediately gripping as the best of Illinois, The Age of Adz is simply better as a whole. Itís not tiring; it doesnít exhaust the listener. This isnít to say itís easily digestible or simple, but rather that, while nearly as long, it aesthetically hangs together well enough that the listener isnít constantly shifting gears, becoming worn out in the process.
Stevens inspiration or jumping off point for The Age of Adz was outsider artist Royal Robertson, and, much like Robertsonís artwork, the themes in the album vacillate between the mundane and heartfelt and surreal and grandiose. Robertson was a schizophrenic and sign-maker, and when his wife left him after two decades of marriage, he began making art somewhere between Basquiat, Darger, comic art and 1970s French animation, and encompasses everything from misogynistic pictures of his wife to apocalyptic futurescapes to psychedelic architecture and futuretech. Itís appropriate that Robertsonís art was the starting point for Stevens. As his pictures have that tension between the small, everyday, vulgar and the fantastic, surreal, otherworldly, so too does The Age of Adz encompass the small, real moments as well as the massive, even unwieldy, ones.