Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz

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Sufjan Stevens' official follow-up to 2005's critically acclaimed Illinoise puts to rest the conceptual trappings that have dominated his work thus far. Taking a cue from 2009's Koyaanisqatsi-inspired BQE, The Age of Adz is a schizophrenic album: a subject-spanning, electro-orchestral collection of original pop songs which feels like more like an exorcism than it does a simple evolution of Stevens' songwriting. The literate, collegiate folk-pop that dominated his earlier work has been transformed by the self-admitted "existential crisis" that followed the success of Illinoise, and while there are elements of the past third-person intimacy on The Age of Adz, it's Stevens himself who bears the weight of the world this time around, though it's never revealed as to whether he's heartbroken, world-weary, or just raw from the unattainable expectations placed on him by many of his overly earnest fans. Loosely based on the work of troubled American Creole artist Royal Robertson, who specialized in apocalyptic visions of the future replete with aliens, utopian temples, and end-time prophesying, Age of Adz (pronounced "oddz"), with its glitch-filled, heavily processed barrage of late-'90s electronica, feels cut from the same desolate cloth as Radiohead's Kid A, or Björk's chilly Vespertine, but where Kid A utilized restraint, The Age of Adz trumpets a near-constant cacophony. Opener "Futile Devices" eases the listener into this new world with the familiar sound of a gently fingerpicked electric guitar, and as Stevens' pitch-perfect, heavily delayed vocals reassure his subject that "I do love you," it almost seems like old times. That dreamy setup is revealed as a red herring just seconds into the epic "Too Much," as tree trunk-sized synth bursts and staccato drum machine blips flip the switch on and unleash the The Age of Adz' most accomplished cog. "Too Much," along with the gorgeous "All for Myself" and the propulsive "I Want to Be Well," are stand-outs not just because of their formidable intricacies (the title cut owns that honor), but because they operate on an emotional level that some of the other tracks fail to convey -- as lovely and naked as closer "Impossible Soul" is, it could have been 20 minutes shorter. Stevens' talents as a musician are indisputable, but it's refreshing to hear him so candid, even if that forthrightness is festooned by enough bells and whistles to wake the dead.

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