Ten years ago, indie auteur Sufjan Stevens threw his fans a curveball by adding in tech-stop sounds to his alt-folk on The Age of Adz (QRO review), to good-if-not-his-greatest results. Five years ago, Stevens returned to his regular impressive style with the impressive Carrie & Lowell (QRO review). Now Stevens returns to his departure, electronica sounds once again on The Ascension.
Whenever a beloved alt-guitar artist goes electronic, and it’s been happening a lot these days, there are always great fears that the artist is just following a wave, and will lose what he or she did great. Yet there’s also an acknowledgement that an artist needs to grow, and he or she is skilled enough to pull off such a move. Both are true once again with Stevens, on The Ascension. “Video Game” is like the best of Adz electronica combined with his powerful intimacy, something very hard to accomplish but Stevens does. The title track has big echoing harmonies deserved of the name “The Ascension”. There’s a memorable teched meander in “Ativan”, and sly Stevens dance-tech on “Death Star”. It all ends with the epic, extended (12:30) opus “America”.
One could quibble with Stevens going back to the electronica well. One could also say that The Ascension as a whole is too extended (over an hour and twenty minutes), more artiste than artist at times. But Sufjan Stevens rises high.