With access only to a drum machine and a computer, the rest of his instruments being in storage after moving, Sufjan Stevens’ September album The Ascension is perhaps his most ‘simple’ and electropop-esque yet. Talking to The Guardian on its release, he discusses how his mind was not in the same folk sphere of his previous break-through successes such as Illinois and Carrie & Lowell: “I’d packed up my guitars in the storage and I think mentally I’d packed away that aesthetic, too.” The album also manifests a far cry from the introspective lyrics often associated with Stevens, instead representing his desire to respond to the volatile political climate and hostile world of the internet.
Opening with the fiery track ‘Make Me An offer I Cannot Refuse’, an exasperated demand for a sign from God in response to the current state of the world, Stevens sets the scene for a more pushy and angsty take on the chaos of humanity than some of his previous work. In quite a severe contrast, the less punchy yet more commercially successful ‘Run Away With Me’ takes a quick musical and lyrical respite from the heavy subject matter of the album to replicate the light fantasy of modern pop culture. Nevertheless, the last thirty-odd seconds of the song remind me of those solemn, ethereal outros which can be found in numerous Carrie & Lowell tracks. So even while attempting to invoke a contemporary pop spirit, something of Stevens’ mellow reflectivity lingers.
‘Video Game’, the second single of the album, continues this more commercial song-writing, with its repeated mantra “I don’t wanna play your video game” providing a catchy albeit still melancholy chorus. Indeed, the song centres around self-identity and fighting against the modern goal of accolades, likes and follows, something somewhat ironic given the commercial sound and production of this very song. Moving on to ‘Lamentations’, a song I kept skipping until I stuck around long enough to hear one of Stevens’ beautifully ethereal, choral outros, we can sense an echoing of a wider theme of the album with the repeated line “I am the future, define the future”: a suggestion of the need to assess the “sense of urgency” surrounding the longevity of capitalism and its issues. Sufjan Stevens opens up to these urgent fears in ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, opening the track with the lines “I’ve lost my faith in everything”.
“I wanna die happy” are the only lyrics of the eerie and existential track ‘Die Happy’, which I strangely enjoy as a brief reminder in the midst of the album of the small goals of humanity in momentous times. Following on from this, ‘Ativan’, a song exploring the use of prescribed drugs for anxiety and insomnia and the struggle to see a greater purpose in life, once again demonstrates Stevens’ exquisite knack for reflective endings, with a pulsating beat uncomfortably mimicking the panic of existential fear and sleepless nights as the song fades out.
‘Ursa Major’ and ‘Landslide’ are, perhaps unusually, my favourite tracks on the album. From the reconclitary and soulful lines of ‘Ursa Major’, calling the lord to “call off all your invasion” for the sake of the beauty all around, to the calm musical notes of ‘Landslide’, invoking the idea of love as a sudden wave of uncontrollable feelings, these two tracks are pure and pastoral amidst the cold, chaotic world of human brutality depicted elsewhere in this album.
‘Gilgamesh’ and ‘Death Star’ are both powerful tracks in their own right, dealing with an ancient quest for immortality and humanity’s failure to deal with climate change respectively, but musically and aesthetically fail to leave an impression on me. The beautiful transition into the floaty electro-beats of ‘Goodbye To All That’, however, marks the beginning of a final few spectacular songs.
‘Sugar’ – a song all about embracing goodness and purity and making it your own – the album’s title track ‘The Ascension’, and the epic twelve minute song ‘America’, finish this one hour-plus epic album in style. ‘The Ascension’ in particular makes this album for me, with its evoking of the wider theme of the album, expressed by Stevens himself, of having previously had a naïve outlook on the world. The repeated “What now?” in the outro sets an uneasy foundation for ‘America’, a “protest song against the sickness of American culture”.
Indeed, what makes the final track and the whole album all the more powerful is the context of Stevens’ abandoned Fifty States Project. Stevens’ demand, “Don’t do to me what you did to America”, constitutes a far cry from the man who set out to write an album per American state to celebrate their individual beauty. Instead, The Ascension provides a disillusioned and heart-broken call to action from someone whose eyes have been opened to the long and tumultuous history leading up to America’s current situation. This is perfectly achieved with the mixture of electronic sounds and ‘pop’ lyrics – and they do not diminish the power of Sufjan’s song-writing and delivery at all.