Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz (Review)

Where to start…


Contextualizing Sufjan Stevens in the broader framework of the music world was easy in 2005, the year of his last traditional, non-B-sides/compilation/instrumental album, Illinois. He was simply a brilliant songwriter, tapping into stories from state history to expose his own intense beliefs and vulnerabilities. His sprawling, manic and stunning compositions were equally balanced with stripped-down, delicate folk pieces to create a wonderful and varied collage.

Now, normally when we write about songwriters we have a tendency to look to the past to draw comparisons. Everyone is inevitably reduced to Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen or Nick Drake, or, or, or, or… During 2005, I would’ve put Sufjan up there with any one of these guys in the upper echelon of writing. And though it’s cliché to do so, if forced to make a comparison, I think he most resembled Brian Wilson than any songwriter we’ve seen in this era. The way he looked to childhood innocence and basic beliefs to extrapolate moods and motifs throughout his music was fantastic.

These days, Sufjan draws a different kind of attention to himself. Perhaps because of his disaffection with the delivery system and format of music, or maybe because of the self-imposed limits of his own ambition, he has become more of a behind-the-scenes artist. His work his shifted more to the realm of composer and collaborator. In a way, what was once a career that could have broadened to Brian Wilson status, he has chosen a different path; something akin to that of Wilson colleague, Van Dyke Parks.


OK. Long-winded intro aside; I say all of these things to contextualize where in Sufjan’s career he is upon the release of The Age of Adz. It’s a seemingly dark place.

If Illinois characterized a place or event, it would have been a ticker-tape parade at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. If Adz was a place or event, it would be a funeral processional in an indistinct future. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

One of the more amazing things about the recent shift in Sufjan’s career (starting with “You are the Blood” off of Dark Was the Night) is his use of electronics in his production. Granted, he has made a straight electronic album in the past (2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit); and since has produced straight folk albums (2004’s Seven Swans) and the aforementioned and varied Illinois. Just like in Illinois, Adz uses a broad spectrum of instruments and melodies to create these impressionist compositions. But the way he uses synth, beeps, buzzes and auto-tune alongside his orchestra of a sound palate is really an accomplishment.

I brought up Van Dyke Parks earlier, because there are definitely traces of that style of fluttery, whimsical flourishes imbedded in these 11 synth-heavy tracks. A perfect example of this balance is the stunning “Too Much” (which I will post after the album’s October 12 release date.) It’s truly a pleasure to see someone with such a solid track record attempting to push himself and music as a whole further.

Having said that; ambition doesn’t come without a cost. While it’s great to laud boundary pushing and genre splicing, Adz tends to struggle under the weight of its own aspirations. The tracks jump from dance-y electronica to Disney strings and horns schizophrenically. Most of the time it’s a pleasant experience, but there is a certain amount of challenge to the listener in 75 minutes of jumping around (including the 25-minute closing track “Impossible Soul”).

Overall, I feel we’re going to revere The Age of Adz for years to come. But, like Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me from earlier this year, the task put on the person experiencing the record is too much to warrant multiple listens. And maybe because of this, everything Sufjan feared with regards to how we listen to records will be his downfall; it’ll be chopped down to 2 tracks on an iPod playlist.

The Age of Adz can be streamed here, and pre-ordered here.

Dig It,


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh Look, It's September

Ahoy there.

Haven't posted anything in a long while. This changes. Now.

I'll cut to the chase, here are some tunes I've been really digging lately:

The Goodnight Loving - Doesn't Shake Me

These guys share some common members with Jaill, who are probably the most "famous" Milwaukee indie band at the moment. Not sure why Sub Pop didn't come after The Goodnight Loving instead, because this sounds like the band ready for the national stage. Melodies, jangle, hooks - they've got it all. 

Cosmetics - Sleepwalking

This band lives in your dreams. If you are lucky.

Cosmos - Nude Metropolis

This song's from last year, but I only recently heard it for the first time (as part of my ongoing Robert Pollard obsession). There is something about the drum part that I really get a kick out of - like it's out-of-step with the piano in the best possible way. As usual, Bob takes a pretty basic chord progression and comes up with like 10 different melodies to sing over it - complete with the big pay-off at the end. dum dum dum.  

In other news...

* I still haven't made it through the new Arcade Fire (yawn), but apparently I'm not the only one who thought that one of the songs sounded just like something else (only Time to Pretend jumped out at me at first, but the rest make sense too)

* Tobin Sprout's The Bluebirds of Happiness Tried to Land on my Shoulder is only sounding better and better as the weather cools down.

* Speaking of dudes in their 50's, my top 2 albums from this year might very well end up being the newest offerings from Gord Downie & Robyn Hitchcock...take that, youngsters. 

Talk to you hopefully before October.

- tk