Sufjan Stevens, a Detroit-born Hope College grad, has been a pride and joy of Michigan’s music scene for the better part of a decade. The quirky songwriter is known for beautifully and meticulously arranged folk songs, full of catchy banjo riffs and uplifting orchestral sections. Stevens is recognized as an artist who puts a lot of time and effort into his work. Following the critically and commercially successful “Illinois” LP in 2005, Stevens remained under the radar, releasing only an album of Christmas songs and an eclectic EP entitled “All Delighted People.” After a long wait from an eager fan base, Stevens returns with his first song-based full length in five years, “The Age of Adz.”
Fans of “Illinois” and “Greetings from Michigan – The Great Lake State” are in for some surprises this time around. Those expecting a similar sound will almost immediately notice some very bold differences. The first track on the album, “Futile Devices,” is a quiet and delightfully tranquil song about the comfort and security of time spent with a close friend. The song is trademark material from Stevens; charming piano and guitar riffs with his ever-so-gentle voice, something that would be great to fall asleep to. Immediately after the two-minute ballad, the album takes an almost humorous turn. “Too Much” launches the listener into a seven-minute song full of glitchy beats, deep bass and digitally-tinged vocals. The rest of the album follows suit, with Stevens delving deep into electronic-based material. The album presents significantly less traditional instrumentation, something very different for long time fans.
Title track “Age of Adz” is a great representation of Stevens’ attitude with this album. The song sounds just as huge and powerful as his chart-topping anthem “Chicago” from “Illinois,” but the orchestra has been replaced with off-kilter synthesizers and layered beats. The full sound and compositional intricacy is still there, but by means of very different sounds. Fans of Animal Collective and other Brooklyn-based art rock bands, rejoice. Music in this vein usually requires an extended absorption period. Stevens, however, is a tested and tried songwriter and these songs are generally agreeable from the first listen.
By putting so much material into each song, most of which are over five minutes long, the record still requires more time to digest than most. Listening to the album from start to finish is a journey full of tough subjects.
The lyrics are significantly less uplifting than previous albums, but nonetheless honest and self-questioning. On “Vesuvius,” Stevens sings, “Sufjan / the panic inside / the murdering panic you cannot ignore.” These songs are the outlet of a very talented and creative artist; they contain personal struggles and are seemingly geared towards self-exploration above trying to connect with an audience.
“The Age of Adz,” as an album, shows a very interesting and successful progression for Sufjan Stevens. By maintaining his scrupulous attitude to songwriting and at the same time tapping into an entirely different genre of music, Stevens succeeds in sounding both recognizable and refreshing. If longtime fans can retain an open mind, they should find the creativity and ingenuity behind “Adz” very rewarding.