Published Sep 23, 2020Twenty years into Sufjan Stevens's catalogue, there's still no way to predict what he'll bring to the table next. His records, while always highly conceptual, remain scattershot in their topics, genres and frequency. The latest in a string of experiments, The Ascension, is no different. But something has changed significantly in his approach. Despite sharing common ground with both 2010's epic, electronic Age of Adz, and 2015's autobiographical, grief-stricken Carrie & Lowell, The Ascension presents itself as something beyond the sonic comparison of the former and has somehow taken a massive step back from the intimacies at the forefront of the latter.
Conversely, Stevens is actively looking outward to the chaos of the world and our collective experience in real-time. He's no longer musing about abstract and whimsical concepts like the planets, the 50 states or the Chinese zodiac. The Ascension taps into something else altogether: the policies, conventions and emotional blueprints that bind us within our humanity and in the world — and the inherent problems therein. Here, he acts as the messenger for broader, existential topics. Having removed himself from the equation in this enormous new project, Stevens speaks to the greater whole, to a generation, and to a civilization on the brink of economic, environmental and political destruction to ask, "Where do we go from here?"
It's a question that begets revolutionary theorizing. As it is, there is only so much that even studied, valid critique can do in the way of tangible change; it's not enough anymore to simply point to our problems and say "no more." We have to — need to — plot a way forward if we're going to survive.
Through its 15 tracks and gargantuan runtime, The Ascension does just that. Doing away with his more esoteric sensibilities, Stevens appeals to a broader base, using his intellect to drive home universal ideals through newly employed devices. Aggregating segments of the zeitgeist and the collective unconscious, low-art pop culture references, alongside a hardcore dance floor ethos, he is weaponizing the status quo for radical, challenging thought.
It's no assault, though. As a balanced collection of critique ("Sugar," "Ativan," "Video Game," "America") and compassion ("Run Away with Me," "Tell Me You Love Me," "The Ascension"), the record finds itself prioritizing the value in the intersection between self-care and progress. It's a polarizing undertaking that is at once apocalyptic and optimistic, and at either extreme, urgent. The resolve is clear. We all — Stevens included — have a lot of work to do on ourselves and among each other. We must re-evaluate our current systems and structures. How do they serve to protect us, uplift our culture and preserve our future? How does compassion for one another factor into capitalism? Does it?
In the absence of any real answer, the only way forward is through love. In the vital words of RuPaul, "If you can't love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love someone else?" It's this mission statement that has been sneaking into Stevens's work for years. He's tired of being quiet. He's done with subtlety. He's cranky as all hell with the state of it all and he's not going to shut up about it.
The antithesis to pervasive corruption — radical love — is at the forefront of the record, and most apparent in "Tell Me You Love Me". In its opening lines, Stevens sings, "My love, I've lost my faith in everything / Tell me you love me anyway." The song crests at the crushing refrain, "I'm gonna love you / I'm gonna love you every day." Even in emerging from the darkness of the anxiety-ridden "Ativan," he sings, "I'm doing the best I can (with what I am)." These are two of many instances where his plans for collective ascension reveal themselves. To meet the dark with the light.
Sonically, The Ascension is a lot to digest, but its intentional severity works to its favour. It's densely packed with jarring, unfamiliar sounds and varies in its vocal cohesion. It's filled to the brim with contradictions and dualities. Gentle and aggressive, perplexing and comforting, the album is both an exorcism and an exercise. Incidentally, it's simultaneously a distillation of his many trademark sounds while also a massive departure from his previous works.
The album demands multiple, active listens, but it's well worth the effort. Hidden beneath its complex layers lies an endless well of new modalities, critical interpretations and potent ideas. Stevens's latest not only petitions for unconditional love and change among us all, but it also represents a dramatic metamorphosis for the artist as well. It's not an album we could have ever expected in 2020, but it is the one we deserve. It may very well be his most challenging and ambitious undertaking to date as well as a sign of the new era of Stevens to come. (Asthmatic Kitty)