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Sufjan Stevens is musical buried treasure

Submitted by Matt Johnson on October 29, 2010 – 11:46 amNo Comment

If you look at the list of top albums on iTunes, you will likely see plenty of familiar names. Currently sitting at number 25 is a name you might not know: Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens’ newest album, “The Age of Adz” (pronounced “odds”), is not only his most ambitious project to date, but is definitely his most personal. The album is difficult to describe sonically because of its grand scale. It wanders from hushed, quiet moments all the way to epic, chaotic crescendos. It is filled with skittering beats, drum samples, horns, synthesizers, dulcimers, guitars and what sounds like a church choir. Amid the chaos, Stevens’ genius becomes evident when you are able to glimpse humanity beneath the cold and dense electronic exterior.

Photo courtesy of hypertrak.com.

“Futile Devices” starts the album out softly with guitar, dulcimer and hushed vocals. From the very beginning, Stevens lays bare his feelings. “It’s been a long, long time since I’ve memorized your face / It’s been four hours now since I’ve wondered through your place / And when I sleep on your couch, I feel very safe,” he sings.

It’s no coincidence the first song is about not being able to express feelings in a way that leaves you believing the other person feels them as strongly as you do. “And I would say I love you,” he continues, “But saying it out loud is hard / so I won’t say it at all.” The last line of the song sums up the frustration in four simple words, “words are futile devices.”

The only way to describe the beginning of “Too Much” is to say it sounds like what a lava lamp looks like.

The intro gives way to a mix of hand claps, blips and hip-hop drum machine beats. Lyrically, it is still about love. “If I was a different man / If I had blood in my eyes / I could have read of your heart, I could have read of your eyes,” he sings. The chorus explains his reservations, “There’s too much riding on that / There’s too much, too much, too much love.” The song ends with a cacophony of horns, flutes, synthesizers and layered vocals repeating the chorus.

Stevens has always been ambitious. His 2003 LP, “Greetings from Michigan – The Great Lake State,” was supposedly the beginning of a plan to commemorate each state with an album. Dubbed the “50 States Project,” he continued with “Illinois,” but has since admitted in interviews that it was a bit of a joke.

“Adz” is his first full-length album of original songs in five years. He spent part of the time between albums working on “BQE,” a film and accompanying music about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City.

On “Get Real Get Right,” Stevens explores his spiritual side and the constant temptations the world presents. “I know you want it / I know you really wanna get it right / Have you forsaken, have you mistaken me for someone else,” the song begins. Spiritual themes are nothing new for Stevens. A Christian in his personal life, he is often more pragmatic than preachy.

The album closes with “Impossible Soul,” a 25-minute opus consisting of five distinct movements. To quote one of Steven’s song titles, words would surely be “futile devices” in any effort to describe the song fully. It simply has to be heard to appreciate it.

“Age of Adz” is not an easy listen. It is not an album that is meant to yield hit singles. It is a dense album with humanity at its core. It is the portrait of an artist at a crossroads, recognizing the realities of life, accepting them and then overcoming them.

If you enjoy listening to an album as a complete work and peeling back hidden layers upon each successive listen, you won’t find a more beautiful album this year.

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