For me, not only is The Age of Adz 2010's best and most important record, it's also a a ubiquitous culmination of Sufjan's work as a multifaceted musician. Hyped in the blogosphere as Sufjan Stevens electronic album, we find Stevens breaking away from the mold of his critically acclaimed style in more ways than just adding synths to the mix and ditching banjos. Since the release of his fan-favorite, Illinois back in 2005, Sufjan had been making some ambiguous comments that were disappointing for fans of his music hoping for a followup to Illinois, including comments about his lack of songwriting inspiration and belief in the "record" system. In one statement, he, like many other artists, questioned the purpose of the length of a normal record when the majority of people purchase music track-by-track and listen to music primarily on shuffle. Just when a followup to Illinois sounded like it would never come, Sufjan unexpectedly released his stunning EP, All Delighted People, and announced the released of his upcoming full-length record. But instead of releasing something that reunited critics and fans-alike with their favorite agreeable indie singer-songwriter, The Age of Adz has split fans and critics across the board with many respected critics unsure even of what to make of it.
Truthfully though, apart from all the buzz, The Age of Adz isn't a far cry from a lot of Stevens' recent work. Check out the electronics of "Movement IV: Traffic Shock" off of his instrumental work The BQE, or the vocal manipulation/symphonic arrangements in the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz is simply the next logical step. Yes, he using drum machines and synths here, but his brand of electronics is uniquely his own. The best example of his new sound is the 8-minute title track that starts with industrial electronic drums and brass hits that slowly transforms into softer gorgeous section of melodious choirs and ends acoustic of all things. Foregoing typical pop structure, the song presents Stevens as a master arranger, songwriter, and composer, wrapping his song around different forms of simple melodic and lyrical motifs. Juggling such a huge overload of sounds and instruments, the album is mixed in such a way that the attention shifts around organically, spotlighting different aspects of the arrangements and sometimes even letting vocals fall into the background (which has plagued a number of people's first listens to the album). However, I found that the more layers of sound I peeled back, the more I realized how deep the songs really go.
But Stevens is doing more here than just adding synths in the mix. In The Age of Adz, Stevens abandons his primary songwriting crutch, the concept album, and replaces it with something intensely personal, somewhat hyperreal, and even emotionally explicit, three things that Stevens has never touched before. Stevens has stated that his work on the instrumental album The BQE "kinda sabotaged the mechanical way of approaching my music, which was basically narrative long-form." In some interviews, he has stated that he desired to write songs that felt physical and satisfying, rather than academically intelligent. But just when you think he is finally writing songs just of themselves, The Age of Adz still finds Stevens referencing things outside himself, most significantly, the schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. Inspired by the often offensive and perverse art of the self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, Stevens claims to have seen a bit of himself in the man's life. But here is where things get really wacky. We're expected to compare the level-headed art of Sufjan Stevens with the isolation-created art of Robertson? The influences play out in the religious and science fiction intermingling of Robertson in songs like "Get Real Get Right", right alongside the frantic emotional turbulence. But like the popularity of stunt-work mockumentaries this year such as Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here, or Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, Sufjan seems to be writing about himself, someone else, and nobody in particular all at once. In "I Want to Be Well", Stevens confronts the viral infection that he suffered from last year in uncharacteristically vulgar ways while in "Vesuvias", he refers to himself in the third person, giving himself spiritual guidance via a mythical burning volcano. Did Stevens finally crack under all the pressure like fellow surrealists Kanye West and Thom Yorke? Is this really his Kid A? He seems to be okay, but Stevens leaves the truth of the answer behind for the sake of making sincere art that captures real emotions, regardless if they are true of him or not.
A listen through the astounding 25-minute, "Impossible Soul", reveals that Sufjan Stevens is also taking a crack at the way music is listened to in a relevant way. Reconciling his concerns about the nature of music in the digital world, Stevens packs an entire albums worth of music into a single track for the price of one gigantic mp3. Featuring an AutoTune section, all-out dance section, and an acoustic section to end the album, "Impossible Soul" is a monumental closing to a hugely ambitious album that has enough creativity and songwriting strength to stand on its own. Many have left criticism of the album to words like "interesting", "important", or just "strange", all of which are fair and justified. Others claim that ambition has finally got the best of Stevens. But honestly when has Sufjan Stevens ever succeeded in being anything less? The Age of Adz is a messy, but poignant manifestation of everything from culture trends in 2010, to hyperrealism, the state of the music industry, Royal Robertson, and Sufjan Stevens himself.