Sufjan Stevens gives you constipation of the wrong kind. The right kind is constipation caused by for instance Phil Collins; when you hear the music and you instantly know it’s bad shit. Your body cramps up and it takes you a few days to get it out of your system if you just set your mind to it.
The Sufjan Stevens constipation is different. It consists of a lengthy inability to figure out if you like his music or not and if is his music is good or not. It might be best to avoid this kind of constipation altogether but you agreed to write a review of “The Age of Adz” so you had to deal with it.
So you listened to the album. You heard an album by an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who for a change used mainly electronic instrumentation to accompany vaguely confessional reflections on love, sex, life and death. You heard some things you liked, more things you disliked and many things that made no sense to you
You listened not once or twice but fifteen to maybe twenty times over a couple of weeks. And it was a strange experience because the album appeared to have the properties of some old fashioned psychology test, like a Rorschach test but not quite similar; the album seemed to reflect your mood in such a manner that on alternate listens you would either like it or severely hate it. You did not hear anything new or different in it and you could definitely pinpoint some things you loved or hated in it but you could never predict what your emotional response to it would be. Let alone analyze it or summarize in one sentence what informed your judgment. Add to that the fact that even after several hearings you could not reproduce a single detail of the album in your head; even “The Division Bell” performed better on that score.
You developed a mild obsession with “The Age of Adz”. You thought about it and the review you had to write all the time and in your mind you had already written a dozen different versions of the definitive review you are about to write. You knew what you liked about it but you were anxious that you would never figure out what you disliked about it so vehemently.
Nor could you really decide if this would be a “Recommended-Album-Despite-All-It’s-Obvious-Flaws” or “Seriously-Flawed-Album-With-Touches-Of-Brilliance” type of review.
And you put off writing until the very last moment. And you fear that your Sufjan Stevens obsession will become a lifetime occupation.
Then finally you set out to write the review. You start off by mentioning the things you like about it and the thing you like the most about it is the beauty that can be found in the details of the arrangements. As one would expect of Sufjan Stevens the album is meticulously crafted and multi-layered and he uses a many sometimes unusual but often pleasant instruments to adorn his pieces. And when that approach works it is really quite good. Instances of this are strewn across the album; for example the horn coda on “Get Real Get Right” is really beautiful. Also the big-fartin’ electronic drum and bass foundation and the glitchy, slippery synthesizer sounds are at the very least fun. And you should mention the celestial female backing singers on many of the tracks but especially on “I Walked”; they are really delicious. As the sum of all it’s different parts “The Age Of Adz” is really a unique album. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good album. In fact you have a number of problems with it that one by one wouldn’t be so disastrous but when you add them all up you are stuck with an album that is only partially palatable, in small portions.
The biggest problem is that even for a Sufjan Stevens album there’s a lot of Sufjan Stevens on it. Too much, in fact. One has to, for example, like Sufjan Stevens’ voice to fully appreciate this album because on this album at least there’s no escaping it.
You dislike his voice. He sounds so sincere and introspective that after listening to it for a while you think Lemmy and Antony are the same person. It’s so intrusive and all over the place that it reminds you of Freddie Mercury. And you don’t like Freddie Mercury, to put it mildly. Furthermore, Stevens sounds so sterile, sexless and dorky that it’s like he lived in Mike Love’s throat for a long while. And he has a tendency to crack into falsetto all the time.
You dislike the density of the sound. It’s so stuffed to the brim with little cosy, well crafted, pretty ornaments on top of ornaments on top of bombastic or——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
THE MOTHERFUCKER’S ELUDING ME
Look, it took me too long to write this review and that’s because so far I don’t understand what I like about it. It’s quite obvious what I don’t like about it. The voice annoys me. The album is overcooked like somebody produced a cherry pie with not just cherries but also apples, kiwi’s, strawberries, pineapples, pears, peaches and etcetera and what have you.
I think “Less Is More” is a valid principle but I can appreciate a certain lushness, for instance on Pet Sounds, if the embellishments at least serve decent songs. This album, however, lacks memorable hooks and the one song that sticks in my memory “I Walked” is uncomfortably similar to Dido’s “Thank You”, of all things. Many pieces consist of repetitive chord sequences with varying instrumentation, chanted phrases and with Stevens’ voice to the fore that can be very off putting. Take for instance the title track; it is just awful.
Stevens’ lyrics do nothing for me and I am non-plussed by the combination of supposedly intimate lyrics and very bombastic arrangements. On “The Age of Adz” Sufjan Stevens comes across as too eager to please and impress. He reminds me of a guy I once worked with who would, at the mere mention of the word coffee, jump up and get you a cup. Awful, servile creep. Seems like Stevens strives for beauty but never achieves more than prettiness. And thereby he leaves nothing to the imagination of the listener.
And what’s sorely missing is anything that really kicks ass or lays down a groove. Yes he applies a disco rhythm in a section the overlong (25 minutes), seemingly pointless and tedious album closing suite “Impossible Soul” but it does not take me to Funky Town.
So all in all there are so many things to dislike about this album for me that I would obviously dismiss it completely and put it in the trash bin of my mind. If it weren’t for I don’t know what.
And for me that’s the most intriguing thing about “The Age of Adz”; that in a certain light and at certain times I quite like it. Like a guilty pleasure, maybe. A very annoying guilty pleasure though. It is something about the atmosphere, and yes , of course some bits and pieces are quite beautiful. But in the end I just can’t figure out what’s the up side to “The Age of Adz”.
And frankly, at the moment I just don’t feel like delving any further into it. I’m tired (of it).
So, there it is: a failed review attempt.
When I was a kid my family used to own a jigsaw puzzle which was insolvable. The last piece would never fit. My mother promised five guilders to the kid that could finish it. Of course no one ever earned that money. Until I took a hammer and forced the piece into the puzzle and my mother, exasperated and because I was the youngest of the eight, paid the sum.
If I were to think any more of Sufjan Stevens I would like some money first.