September 27, 2020

Sufjan Stevens releases his 8th mainline studio album, the lush, electronic, and heartfelt The Ascension - Album Review

Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension Review

Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension Album Review

As an accomplished and fan-favorite indie musician marching to the beat of his own drum, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yahn) Stevens has mastered nearly every corner of electronic and indie rock productions, often recording either bare-bones recordings that put his breathy vocals and a single instrument in the forefront, or creating a lush atmosphere of electronic orchestrations. The Ascension takes all of this growth over the past 20 years of his career and places it affirmatively into a seminal album full of love and hope. 

Starting with a catchy syncopated rhythm reminiscent of a Radiohead or Thom Yorke beat, angelic vocals sweep into the mix, showcasing Sufjan's God-given vocal cords. Full of spiritual and religious imagery, Sufjan's music is often steeped in love, an almost religious experience is aurally produced in much of his music of previous releases, and Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse fits this mold gorgeously. Run Away With Me is a call to a lover to make a new life together, which is complemented by a soft piano and a cathedral-like reverb echoing through the track. Die Happy has an eerie, dreamy build as Sufjan's existential request is repeated like a mantra, and it plateaus at half of its runtime into a fantastical amalgym of electro dream pop. Ativan gives off more Yorke electronic sensibilities in its beat as Sufjan asks what life is worth, questioning the meaning of the divine plan. 

The following tracks also permeate this same spiritual ethos. Ursa Major, for example, stands out as Sufjan's most distinct track of the album for its rare fusion of eastern music influence in its electronic beat, while Sufjan builds to the falsetto chorus "I wanna love you!" It's an injection of bliss in the middle of the album and is closely followed by the sonically pleasing Landslide, which asks listeners to "take a walk in the circle of life". What becomes clear through the listening of this album is that Sufjan has developed an electronic sound all his own, and instead of the typical mainstream electronic, hip-hop, or pop tracks that rely on autotuned technology to give credence to other artists, Sufjan's ability to instill his own heart and soul (with a real talent for singing) makes his music all the more precious, genuine, and sincere. 

One of The Ascension's singles, Sugar, appears within the final trio of tracks, and its playthrough is certainly a journey, much like the final song America, and both contain memorable buildups and ambient landings that are soft and excellent palate cleansers for an album full of various electronic orchestration and experimentation. The most memorable message of The Ascension is Sufjan's final parting words in America, "don't do to me what you did to America" as Sufjan's call and concern for our country's troubles and tensions "dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia" and "don't look at me like I'm acting hysterical" reverberate with a hefty weight that should motivate anyone listening to take their individual action to try and help to fix the country. It's a timely and resounding message that is appropriate for the present day. 

The Ascension propels Sufjan and any willing listener to heights of grandeur. The only real criticism of this album is that it does seem like too much of a good thing (if that's even possible). If Sufjan were to nominate a single track for the cutting room floor or even cut a little bit of the slow rise and fall from a couple of songs, then this album's runtime would ultimately be served for the better. Still, this is hardly a problem, since too much of a good thing is exactly what this world is in dire need of at the present moment. 

The Ascension - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: Ursa Major, Landslide, America