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The latest Sufjan Stevens album feels spacious. That may seem an uninteresting observation, given the 45 year old singer-songwriter’s penchant for grand arrangements, yet frequently his music is so dense, furnished so completely and precisely that not a second feels wasted, and on such tracks it can be hard to find anywhere to breathe. This remains a hallmark of Stevens’s work despite his considerable effort to evade sonic pigeonholing; there may be many differences between the lush orchestral fanfares of Illinois and the jagged synths of The Age of Adz, but you can’t exactly call either minimalist.

When he does pare down the grandeur, Stevens is able to take a franker, more searing look into himself - it is no surprise that his most musically restrained offering, Carrie and Lowell, is also lyrically and emotionally his most giving, as he openly explores his complex relationship with his parents and the death of his mother. Many of the scars still sting too, as he seemingly grapples with feelings of resentment, fear and ultimately forgiveness in real time. Often in his career Stevens has allowed his emotions to lurk below a veneer of whimsy, yet here that barrier fades away completely. It’s hard not to feel that he forewent his typically lavish soundscapes in order to put such richly intimate lyricism front and centre. 

These seem to be the two sides of Sufjan Steven, and they often feel at odds. Whether you get the banjo-twanging, Christmas-loving, angel-wing-sporting extrovert or the cerebral, whispering soul-searcher seems entirely dependent on whatever has most recently happened in the singer’s life. The Ascension is notable, however, in that it seems to disregard both of these, potentially the result of his recent move which left his favoured instruments in storage. Concordantly, the record represents a complete style overhaul, with the bells, horns and banjos of previous efforts thrown out in favour of downbeat synthesizers and hollow, clattering beats. These elements are still fashioned together with the sort of painstaking care Stevens has become known for in his most extravagant efforts, yet here they feel colder; vocal samples, bursts of distortion and bassy rumbles are tightly weaved through the album, but these are repetitive and unnerving. 

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Gone for the most part also is the soft, kitchen-sink folk. Nor do the lyrics delight in abstract whimsy - instead they are plain and confrontational. Their target: America. The album’s most passionate moments manifest themselves in political frustration, pastures (almost) new for Stevens. Take his attack on modern pop culture consumption in ‘Video Game’ or the sprawling genre-defying finale ‘America’, which Stevens has described as ‘overtly a political protest song’. 

"His words feel simultaneously direct and detached, like an AI gradually learning to compute human emotion."

His words frequently echo pop culture cliches, but with the glossy packaging removed. When Stevens sings ‘make love to me’ or ‘tell me you love me’, it feels raw and distant, possibly a comment on the overproduced singalongs such platitudes so often inhabit. There is no commercial sparkle or varnish, in fact he makes little effort to apply one. His words feel simultaneously direct and detached, like an AI gradually learning to compute human emotion. This exemplifies a wider cutting cynicism to the album that feels uncharacteristic of the singer. 

But then surely the unexpected is exactly what we have come to expect from Stevens. This is, after all, a man who adorned the live tour performances of the intimately subtle Carrie and Lowell with a full band, a choir, impenetrable walls of synth and even a cover of Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’. After over a decade examining himself, his family and his home-state, with The Ascension and 2017’s intergalactic odyssey Planetarium Stevens appears to have made an effort to shift the focus firmly off himself and onto the world around him. 


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And the results of this makeover? Mixed. While Planetarium may have set its goals too high with its cosmic promises, The Ascension fares somewhat better. Clocking in at 80 minutes, it can be a testing listen, yet there are rewards to be found at the end of the tunnel, and indeed over the course of the journey. ‘Die Happy’ is a chilling, captivating confessional with the aesthetic of a lullaby that transitions seamlessly into the equally impressive panic-stricken ‘Ativan’. Elsewhere the title track is a beautiful, stripped-back effort that feels like the most conventional Sufjan Stevens song on the album, with its swirling backing vocals and gentle, echoing piano, over which Stevens reflects candidly on his worldly contributions, confessing ‘I thought I could change the world around me’ - maybe an admission that the plucky optimist who once claimed he would write an album for every single state in America, is no more. 

Perhaps the highlight of the album though is opening track ‘Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse’, where haunting choral harmonies and euphoric pulsing synthesizers tussle for domination across the back of a spluttering beat and Stevens’ gorgeous falsetto, before erupting into a glitching mountain of noise that is as abruptly introduced as it is stripped away - it is as complete, daring and brilliant a track as any he has ever written. It represents the best part of Stevens, a fiercely defiant creativity he shows no sign of taming.