Artist: Sufjan Stevens Title: The Age of Adz Release date: October 21 Label: Asthmatic Kitty
The new record by indie-music deity Sufjan Stevens is an hour-and-12-minute endurance test, one who's raison d'etre is revealed in the closing seconds of the record's final song, "Impossible Soul." As that 25-minute suite comes to its merciful close, Stevens, he of the critically lauded and exceedingly precious state-themed records about the two states where I've spent most of my life, Michigan and Illinois, sings, "Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure / Boy, we made such a mess together."
The nothing-less-than-pleasure element comes from Stevens' self-indulgence, his utter adoration for his own considerable talent and creativity. The mess? Take a listen to this record and you'll know what he means. It is one glorious mess, a nuclear blast of musical exhibitionism in which Stevens shows you everything he's got, whether you need to see it or not.
This is the kind of disc that you listen to, then say, "Wow. That's quite an artistic achievement." Then you put it in your CD rack and never, ever listen to it again. I listened to it twice, just give it a chance. Once I got past marveling at the music, and everything that's going on it, I started to look for something I could latch on to. Beyond the opening track, nothing.
Stevens' talent seemingly knows no limits. And this is bravura music-making with ambitious string, horn, and choral arrangements, diverse instrumentation, multi-layered sounds, unpredictable melodies, and lyricism in which Stevens seems to bare all. Too bad most of it's obscured by over-the-top, always-distracting synths.
Are all the electronics meant to challenge his longtime listeners, who fell in love with his neo-folk sound? Are they there to hide his new lyrics (which he knew may alienate longtime fans) behind? Maybe he's simply a musician taking a new direction, tired of being Sufjan Stevens the brand, looking for new ways to push his own boundaries. Maybe he just wants to fuck with people.
Speaking of the f-word, much has been made about Stevens' repeating the phrase "I'm not fucking around" in the penultimate track "I Want to Be Well." Even though you really have to listen for it, he says it over and over, as if he everything that's come before The Age of Adz WAS just Sufjan Stevens fucking around -- that now he's going to do what he wants to do, make music on his terms, not his fans. I'll let the Stevens fanboys (and they are legion) fight over that. To me, all this record is is Stevens fucking around -- with his new synthesizer toys, with his own talent. The guy's a great artist, but The Age of Adz is damn near unlistenable.
Best song: Opening track "Futile Device." In which Stevens sings, "Words are a futile device." It's the only song on Adz that bears repeat listens. Rotation: Low Deja vu: Not giving the people what they want. I'd rather listen to: Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Grade: D
"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 41-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.