Album Name: The Ascension
Band: Sufjan Stevens
Release Date: Sept 25, 2020
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There’s a great thaw beginning. Imagine those old educational nature videos. A frozen stream trickles back to life in timelapse, suddenly a beaver is swimming around again like she loves to do. That could be us soon. Restrictions are loosening. We’re shaking the chill out of our fingers and dusting things off. Ready to be not only productive, but creative. So put on “The Ascension” by Sufjan Stevens to really get your mind going – high concept electropop that will chime you awake from mental hibernation with its lofty genius.
As his eighth studio album, “The Ascension” feels like a homecoming for Sufjan Stevens. It’s a truly poetic journey coping with the marriage of mortality and spirituality. He’s always broken our hearts with that message, and it all seems to have come to a full crescendo in this record. “The Ascension” immerses us in the struggle of coming to terms with existence, phasing through outlooks on it in a natural pathology.
It begins with the track titled “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” which brings us online in an apathetic Radiohead-style trance. The outlook grows like a child, from the naivety of “Run Away With Me,” to the helpless desperation of “Tell Me You Love Me,” (amazing track) to the drug-addled melancholy of “Ativan.” All the way through the darkness we come to a realization that there is something more. There is a natural spiritual awakening beginning with “Ursa Major,” and I don’t want to spoil the plot but after all the trials and tribulations we do get “The Ascension.” And in these lyrics we hear someone finally reach the peak of understanding by some grace, only to be called up by literal angel choirs back to an uneasy apathy chanting what now? Oof. Consider my heart wrenched as always, Sufjan.
Then, once storytime is over we get the coda, “America,” a politically disappointed emotronica epic to finish us off with sweeping chimes, crushing synthesizers and reverse guitar solos – airily haunting our psyches with falsetto chanting.
I mean he’s always been a concept album guy, but Sufjan Stevens is pretty far departed from the label of singer-songwriter at this point. It was five years ago now since Carrie & Lowell, (that gorgeous album!) came out. That was his last official solo record, and it was full-fledged folk with banjo and guitar and stories about his family. Sonically, it couldn’t be more different than “The Ascension.” But you could trace his venture into composing in this lofty electrosynphonic style to “Planetarium” which was a collaboration he did in 2017 with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister. I’m interested to see what’s next in this artist’s trajectory.
The sad-man-in-a-synth-lab vibe of it all might not be for everyone but you can probably tell this was one of my favourite albums of 2020. The profound concepts come through poetically clearly in the lyrics, and while the same instruments are used in every tune, Sufjan Stevens draws us into a variety of moods through surreal soundcraft, as if we’re feeling them firsthand. It’s an inspiring record that cracks through the ice and reaches in for something much much deeper.
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