Sufjan Stevens: The Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 21st, 2020  

Sufjan Stevens

The Ascension

Asthmatic Kitty

Oct 06, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Give me a beat! Yes, you, Sufjan Stevens. Fans hoping to find the lolling acoustics of his last album 2016’s Carrie & Lowell might want to take a minute as he’s written an electronic album with programmed drum beats in a nod to Rhythm Nation—Janet Jackson’s socially conscious, 1989 pop juggernaut. 

This idea is fully fleshed out in the layered, percussive march of “Death Star,” situated just over midway in this electro-epic, which clocks in at 121 minutes in length. The soundscape sculpts the equivalent might of a rhythm nation army with a trio of Prophet synthesizers, punched up with twinkly flourishes and pulled back with hushed but stern words: “Death Star into Space/What you call the human race/Witness me resist the hate/It’s you’re own damn head on that plate.” The song doesn’t so much as end but segues seamlessly into “Goodbye to All That.” Why waste a good crescendo when you can draw on a choir of angels to then foreground the cathedral-lushness of Stevens’ choral-like vocals—urging us that now’s the time to leave “artifacts” and “everything out of whack,” in order to “feel the afterglow.” 

“Sugar” follows on. Its refrain “C’mon baby give me some sugar” is the kind of overused trope you’d find in R&B-centered pop. It jars, not in the least because his delivery is robotic, yet his sonic fingerprint makes it work. And at the point in an oeuvre where things might start to drag, it keeps a steady pace. 

The Ascension harks back to the heavy electronics of 2010’s Age of Adz but with adroit focus on the themes of existential dread and the quest for meaning with a bounty of angry yet hopeful songs that satisfy melodically and metaphysically. At its emotional core is still Carrie & Lowell’s warm, beating heart and anguish—“Tell Me You Love Me,” “Landslide,” and title track “The Ascension”—build on that. 

The album kicks off all glitch-y, powered by pneumatic beats and swells into a pandemonium that mimics the barrage of bad news-over-worse news that now punctuates our existence. “Show me the face of a radical dream,” he implores on opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse.” And when Stevens wants the comedown, he employs it with the slow ebb of fading dissonance—which alone is a thing of beauty. “Run Away With Me” is like being set on a beach with the tide finally in retreat. He alludes to current strife—pandemic deaths and Black lives (“They will terrorize us/with new confusion…with new illusions/let the dead revive the beast within”). Then coaxes us to forget all the rueful disquiet and despair with gorgeous drum-and-synth orchestration, and to rise above with a promise of love and nature as ultimate saviors.

In “Video Game,” there’s a gaiety in the melodious pop. And the playful refrain: “I don’t want to play/I don’t want to play your video game” leavens the seriousness of a world burning at every turn, given fully to the basest of human impulses—narcissism, racism, sexism, and greed.

As is expected of a Sufjan Stevens album, The Ascension is replete with religious iconography and references to ancient myths and monism but perhaps the most poignant is “Gilgamesh.” A semi-mythic king whose fear of death after a dear friend’s demise, prompts him on a quest for mortality—he fails at mortality but the quest itself gives meaning to his life. Stevens admits he is no scientist, politician, or preacher but he recognizes his strength as an individual and us, as a collective, to question, to seek, to affect change. (www.sufjan.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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