Sufjan Stevens, the man behind 2015’s ethereal and heart-wrenching Carrie And Lowell returns with his his first solo album in 5 years. But those 5 years haven’t been dormant for Stevens, he’s spent the last few of them working on his more collaborative side. In 2017 he released Planetarium with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister. 2019 brought about The Decalogue with Timo Andres and only back in March he released the new age influenced Aporia alongside father-in-law Lowell Brams, one half of Carrie And Lowell. This also marked the retirement of Brams from Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label the two created together and recording music. Now he’s returned with an album that delves into every aspect of Stevens’ religious routes, soundtracked by sweeping synthesisers and reaching ambient passages.
On The Ascension Stevens is looking for an answer, and there’s only one man who can give it to him, the big one in the sky. “Shall you abuse me? Show me the grace of a natural king, Lord, I need deliverance, Make me an offer I cannot refuse” he says on opener Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse. It’s Stevens searching for an answer to all the hurt and confusion in the world at the moment, and asking the man who’s supposed to be responsible for it all why it’s happening. He’s also refelcting on not only his beliefs but his belief in his own judgement “But now it strikes me far too late again, That I was asking far too much of everyone around me” he states on title track The Ascension. It’s this ability to not only look inwardly but outwardly and retrospectively at the same time that continues Stevens long lasting ability to tell rich and vibrant stories. For all the questioning and doubt he lays down in this album, there’s still a sense of hope about Stevens as he tries to enhance a more positive attitude on life; looking at moments and people with hope. “At the risk of sounding like a Confucian, I saw your body and I saw what I liked” he says on ‘Landslide’. Evoking a mindset of positive thinking, if he was simply to imagine the way he perceived someone then it would in turn become reality.
Sonically this album is one of Stevens’ grandest outings. Long gone are the gentle plucks and strums of ‘All Of Me Wants All Of You’, this time replaced for a more synthesised and pop oriented display. The cinematic sweeps of ‘Die Happy’ glide between the transcendental and the mysterious as the arpeggios and electronic infused beats shift and twirl between each other to create some of Stevens’ most adventurous and rich sonic landscapes to date. The album focusing on the bigger picture of life, soundtracked by some of the biggest moments of sonic experimentation Stevens’ has crafted yet. The tone is set on opener ‘Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse’ as the rising synthesisers and pounding drums build to a euphoric climax; almost like an ascension. For all the moments of grandeur on this album though there’s still fragments of the subtlety that can be found throughout most of Stevens’ work. Title track ‘The Ascenion’ slowly builds arpeggiated synths and vocal harmonies to soundtrack Stevens’ most reflective song on the album; presented almost as a memoir as he ‘ascends’. The sound doesn’t overpower the contemplations Stevens’ is singing about, rather giving them a more holy and spiritual sounding backing.
Some of Stevens’ most synth-pop styled sounds come out in the form of ‘Run Away With Me’ that could have easily been found on Beach House’s Depression Cherry with the glistening synthesiser waves and tight clicking beats. And ‘Landslide’ that has one of Stevens’ most powerful, and emphatic chorus’ to date. Swelling through layers of sub bass, glitchy beats and vocal harmonies to reach a pivotal cry out of the line “My love is a wave, You got me caught in a landslide”. The more pop-centric style doesn’t always quite hit the groove however. ‘Video Game’ sounds like a cross between an early 2010’s Owl City hit and a deep Beck cut that never quite fuses the hidden message it’s trying to deliver with the overly clunky beat together. The messaging behind the song is rebelling against a world based around likes and how many followers you have, more to “keep it real” as Stevens’ puts it. But comes across like that distant uncle you have posting conspiracy theories on Facebook whilst simultaneously claiming the internet is ruining the kids, man.
Through all the colourful and vibrant textures that Stevens’ creates on this album, the main problem comes with its length and density. At nearly an hour and a half you have enough time to fit it a feature length films worth of content. Yet more often than not the back half of the songs are taken up with some form of vague ambient swirling synthesiser movement that take away the flow. And at many points causes the otherwise texturally expansive songs to get lost in a murky oversaturated sound. One of the worst offenders being ‘Gilgamesh’ that clunks and sputters different sounds over each other whilst Stevens’ sings some form of vague vocal melody, all for it to fade out into a panning synth atmosphere that throws in elements of the already broken song. It’s not to say that these passages are hard to listen to, often the opposite. But with the amount of them in an album that already has a 12 minute epic in the form of ‘America’ it just leaves the album overflowing with noise that tries to compete to be more ethereal than on the previous song.