October 14, 2010 § 5 Comments
When Sufjan Stevens announced a new full-length album after several years of side-projects and silence, indie fans everywhere rejoiced. Here was Stevens, the poster boy for high-brow indie folk-rock, finally returning to blow our minds again. And if the critical and popular response is a barometer, The Age of Adz has either exhilarated you or confused the crap out of you. Departing from his usual orchestrated, quirky folk-rock, Sufjan has replaced the banjo and acoustic guitar with a dazzling array of electronic effects and dark, soul-searching lyrics, which in turn has alienated some of his old fans.
It seems to me, however, that this isn’t that radical departure that some have said it is. These songs are still packed with sound, except this time it is electronic noise, not layered guitar parts. Sufjan’s lyrics have also carried their dark side (John Wayne Gacy Jr. anyone?), but in the past the music surrounding this darkness has softened it, not intensified it. Yes, for those accustomed to Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, Michigan and Seven Swans, The Age of Adz feels like someone has replaced their best friend with a strange facsimile of him. But I think if they keep listening they’ll find that their friend has not been replaced, but only been changed by his experiences over the past few years. This is an album created from a deeply personal place, and while Sufjan does take inspiration from artist Royal Robertson (the album is named after one of his paintings) and his story, this album is more an exploration of Sufjan’s psyche than it is anything else.
To some this album may sound like a disaster, like it was created without form. To think that Sufjan, a meticulous musician if there ever was one, would have just thrown Age of Adz together without thought is a preposterous assumption. Now, some may say it is over-indulgent or pompous, but that doesn’t mean it is unorganized or sloppy. It is a chaotic, bewildering ride, but I think it is like this for a reason. What is Sufjan, who is an artist obsessed with making grand statements about life through his music, trying to say with The Age of Adz? This is the question before us as we listen to this confounding, glorious mess of an album.
Opener “Futile Devices” closes with the line, “And words are futile devices.” As the delicate music fades, we are abruptly forced into the harsh, electronic landscape that constitutes “Too Much.” I think this is a deliberate move on the part of Sufjan, and by forcing us to confront this new sonic texture he is placing the music/style of album above the “futile devices” of language. This isn’t to say that the lyrics don’t play a major role on this album, but that perhaps they play, and always have played, a subservient or complementary role in Sufjan’s music.
So onward we venture, into the noise that is The Age of Adz. There are big questions everywhere on this album, sometimes voiced very subtly. Sufjan is contemplating aging, fame, relationships and ultimately life and love and he’s doing this within the framework of the album. He’s asking us to concentrate, and in recent interviews, he has wondered if the album means anything anymore with people downloading music as much as they do.
“When I die, oh when I die, I’ll rot/but when I live, when I live, I’ll give it all I got,” sings Sufjan on the title track. The Age of Adz seems to embody tension throughout its running time. There is a tension between the electronic elements and the horns and strings, a tension between death and illness and life and love and a tension between Sufjan the artist and Sufjan the person. On “Vesuvius” Sufjan refers to himself in the third person with these lines, “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” This is Sufjan revealing his thoughts to us, and possibly giving us a clue about his departure from his previous style of music.
It seems as if Sufjan is trying to follow his heart, answering his own question from “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” of, “Are you writing from the heart?” On “I Want to be Well” Sufjan confidently declares, “I’m not f—ing around.” This comes as a shock to us, as Sufjan normally never uses profanity in his songs, but I think it is a necessary shock. It’s Sufjan letting us know that this album isn’t the result of him screwing around, but that it is a cohesive statement about life and his desire to live it in the right way. It is also fitting that this line comes right before the album’s 25 minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” an exhausting, overwhelming, yet truly triumphant song if there ever was one.
“Impossible Soul” deserves a blog post in its own right, which I will save for another time. The Age of Adz also deserves more than this slight write-up. It deserves your time, concentration and contemplation. There are parts that confuse me and that I don’t appreciate musically, but I think the musical vision that Sufjan is bringing to the table here is something that hasn’t been heard before. Is it the defining album of our time, as some of the more extreme hyperbole has stated? Is it even the best album of the year? We’ll have to see how well it holds up, but what I can say is that it will definitely be one of the most challenging and also most potentially rewarding albums of the year. So what is Sufjan trying to say? I think he’s asking us to filter through all the noise in our lives, mirrored in some ways by the noise on The Age of Adz, and find the meaning underneath it all.
September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.
In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.
If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.
On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.
This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.
One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.
The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short. But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?