Sufjan Stevens rages and despairs through The Ascension’s bloated protest bangers

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens
Photo: Asthmatic Kitty Records

Sufjan Stevens wants to love America. His early odes to Illinois and Michigan are as meticulously researched as they are intimately felt, the songwriter marveling at the geography, strife, and historical oddities of his childhood haunts. But you’ll find no such reverence on The Ascension, a bloated and often beautiful portrait of political and emotional anxiety that longs for nothing more than to break away from the systems that brought us to this current moment. “I have lost my patience” is one of the album’s first lyrics. “There’s no time for innocence,” he sings a few moments later. “Decatur,” this is not.

But for all of Stevens’ violent words about the album’s intentions—“Exterminate all bullshit,” he said in a press release—The Ascension is more weary than angry, with Stevens fighting against hopelessness while trying to cheer himself with kaleidoscopic arrangements as danceable as anything in his catalog. His vocals are hushed, his lyrics abstract and circuitous—evocative phrases turn inside out as they float through ambient passages, glitter bombs, and clanging squalls of industrial noise. If you thought 2010’s Age Of Adz was exhausting, buckle up: The Ascension spans 15 tracks, and there’s no “Futile Devices” or “Now That I’m Older” to offer you a breather. “Gilgamesh,” for example, starts as a hymn, ghostly and serene, before Stevens is swallowed up by whirring beats and 8-bit squeals.

The Ascension’s relentless busyness is both a feature and a bug. There’s joy in strapping on a pair of headphones and luxuriating in this galaxy of samples, squiggles, and beats (Enjoy Your Rabbit fans will be pleased), and it’s undeniably thrilling when the shadow of Trent Reznor falls over “Death Star” and “Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse.” But Stevens himself rarely transcends that wall of sound; in trying to take the temperature of a country in unrest, he’s robbed us of his inimitable talent for narrative and self-reflection. This was intentional (“Our problems are no longer personal; they’re universal,” he told The Atlantic), but lyrically, there’s just so little to latch onto. There’s bile spit at the country’s toxic leadership (“Don’t drink the poison or they’ll defeat you”), Silence Of The Lambs and Army Of Darkness references, and a multi-song detour into prayer (“Fill me with the blood of Jesus,” he sings on “Ativan”). And there’s love, whether it be pleas to be loved in spite of Stevens’ hopelessness or exhortations that he will love in the face of it. His cries of “I’m gonna love you!” on “Tell Me You Love Me” will send chills up your spine, but you’ll still miss the little novels nestled in every Carrie & Lowell song.

The exception is the penultimate, title track, which excises the bells and whistles as it allows our narrator to “answer for myself as the Ascension falls upon me.” Strung between godly posturing and self-reckoning, the six-minute solo toys—like many songs on The Ascension—with Stevens’ complex brand of Christianity, emphasizing humility and worship over self-deification. In the context of The Ascension, this emphasis isn’t religious, but political in nature. Many assumed the album’s 12-minute lead single, “America,” was a rebuke of God, but the songwriter clarified that it was meant to be “overtly a political protest song, specifically about America.” When he sings, “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” he’s speaking not to God, but to a population that deifies celebrity, that blurs the line between entertainment and government.

Through that lens, The Ascension’s abrasive and largely appealing brand of chaos feels intentional, a reflection of a world that’s become beholden to the 24-hour news cycle’s dopamine hits. Rage and despair surface time and again, as do cries to a distant god and hopeful stabs at communality. “Death Star” and “Goodbye To All That” appear to contain warped samples of Age Of Adz’s 25-minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” a song that, perhaps naively, found joy in the notion that “we can do much more together.” Its inclusion feels both cynical and hopeful, an acknowledgement of futility that simultaneously works to combats nihilism. It also leaves listeners asking the same thing Stevens does at the end of the title track: “What now?”

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