Not being particularly au fait with the previous work ofSufjanStevens, at least beyond an understanding of pleasant acoustic fare with niche acclaim, The Age of Adz wasn't high on my list of anticipated autumn releases. The wisdom of free streaming full albums is on display here, then, as I stumbled across the album on Bandcamp and, with no hurdles to having a quick spin, quickly became enamoured with the Brooklyn songwriter's new creations. From that platform it was an easy jump to purchase the album via Amazon release day offer.
But enough of the varying merits of digital music distribution, for there is a rather ambitious, increasingly lovable album to chronicle.
Futile Devices sets the LP out on what I believe is fairly familiar territory for Stevens, an achingly vulnerable acoustic welcome with light piano accompaniment and whisper-light singing. It's short and leaves us with the parting aside that 'Words are futile devices'. A curious musing for a singer-songwriter, perhaps, but one that sets up the album progression nicely.
Too Much follows and keeps the lyrics to a fitting minimum, instead offering a smorgasbord of effects and instrumentation. Skillfully weaved together for a simultaneously organic and digital feel, this is whereSufjantakes off in a much more experimental direction. Holding onto the light melodies and subtlety of songwriting for which he is regularly lauded, he's also feeling the pull of technology this time around. Bristling staccato effects pop in and out of the song, punctuating the silky melodies of his voice and the strings to beautiful effect. It really is gorgeously worked, where a more ham-fisted creator would have created an unpalatable sonic mess.
On that beauty the following title track initially seems to go to war, riding in on a rousing march of effects that could sound track an epic Star Wars battle scene. After the Muse-like bluster, it settles into a more hopeful line that eases us into the soft centre of the song. Boasting a prominent intrusion of brass at key moments, elsewhere it revels in quiet reflection and angelic backing vocals. Truth be told, this is a sprawling number that covers many bases, once more coming out as a coherent whole only because Stevens so capably sews the various strands together.
I Walked offers a chance to sit back and reflect, with a glitchy synth undercurrent washing the love lorn lyrics along for the duration of the song. After the kitchen sink feel of the title track, the understated approach of this elegant tune is most welcome. Now That I'm Older continues that feel, calmly drifting in and out in tidal fashion. The lyrics take the main focus here, with the singer pondering maturity and experience. Ostensibly finding only more unsettling questions, the song drifts out unresolved.
Get Real Get Right resurrects the bombastic effects, with a skittering drum loop, warm tropical beats, and those confident horns back to do battle. Despite a lilting pace overall, the passages are again varied and a real cut and paste element prevails. It still flows though, morphing sounds into a cohesive, if mildly disconcerting end game.
Bad Communication reverts to a front and centre vocal, the shimmering effects reduced to background layers for one of the album's more melancholy moments. Perhaps this is to set the scene for one of the more prominent cuts on The Age of Adz, Vesuvius. A slow build, it broods and muses its way to a climatic end by way of off-time drum loops and ever increasing vocal layers. Bizarrely affecting, it's a curious yet insistent highlight.
Following that, All For Myself goes with the subtle path in short and unassuming fashion. Trickling by, it serves almost as a quiet interlude to move into I Want To Be Well, a juddering upbeat track with hints of Postal Service lingering somewhere in the background. Switching between vocal refrains that verge on the maniacal and racing instrumentation, the song changes pace regularly and, as with many moments on The Age of Adz, hints at the influence of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson (below) that fittingly inspired much of the album.
Closing track Impossible Soul features My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden - only familiar to me previously from her wonderful cover vocal on Dark Was The Night contribution Feeling Good - quite prominently, adding further variation to the flow of the album. With the (probably) unintended irony inherent in the lyrical centre piece "Don't be distracted", both the strength and minor Achilles heel of this release are held up for scrutiny. Attempting to dissect the various passages of the song would lead to a review in and of itself.
While The Age of Adz does on occasion feel bloated, the vast majority shows off the talents of its creator in pulling so many strands of music together and maintaining a set of songs that hold the attention of the listener. It's an ambitious album that sometimes gets caught in its own expansive vision but far more regularly achieves it. There are sing along moments, climaxes worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, and a great deal of inner monologue emotion suddenly laid bare for all to hear.
This one won't be pieced together in one or two sittings but offers every possible reason to come back and keep figuring it out. And when we look back at the albums that mean the most to us, how often is that a defining factor?