It’s now five years since the release of Carrie & Lowell, an album of such exquisite intimacy that felt perhaps the record Sufjan Stevens had been carrying all his life. In the years between there have been other projects – film soundtracks, singles and collaborations, including this spring’s Aporia, made in partnership with his stepfather, Lowell Brams. But The Ascension is Stevens’ first full-length solo recording since 2015, and it is a very different creature to its predecessor: banjoed prettiness given way to experimental electro-pop; precise and particular lyricism set aside for broad, swathing choruses.
This feels an anxious, urgent record – intended to reflect, one suspects, this anxious, urgent age. It’s there in the discordant electronics of “Goodbye To All That” and the abrasive mechanical thrust of “Death Star”, and in lyrics that speak of lost patience, hazardous demons and a need for deliverance.
If it is at times uncomfortable – if “Die Happy’’s twinkling opening notes soon twist and sour, or “Gilgamesh”’s soft-wash vocals are scoured by synths, or even if his imagery shifts swiftly from the sublime to the scatological, then it is likely deliberate. These are songs that hang on the brink: “Lamentations” offers a portrait of indecision and uncertain future, “Tell Me You Love Me” stands in the precise moment “before everything falls apart”.
Many tracks seem to contain a battle or debate of sorts. In the hooky “Video Game” Stevens argues against mindless populism: “I don’t care if everybody else is into it,” he sings. “I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain.” Oftenhe sings about what he is not: blessed, a young man, one for controversy; it seeds a sense of unfamiliar negativity and disgruntlement beneath these songs. “Is someone gonna cut me some slack?” he wonders in the rallying “Sugar”. Elsewhere he implores an unspecified other variously to love him, tranquillise him, sanitise him. Not to leave, not to make him wait, not to make him do it again.
But there is brightness in these 15 tracks too – a persistence of love, a gleam of betterment. The musical discord is always buoyed by pop inclination, always lifted by the soar and beauty of Stevens’s voice, and out of the record’s mulchiest moments grows something hopeful. By the time we reach the title track, the album’s penultimate number, Stevens has returned to familiar musical radiance. “What now? What now? What now?” runs its final refrain, sounding if not cheerful exactly then at least open to the life to come.
Stevens has long refrained from publicly discussing his own faith – though it has often surfaced in his work. The Ascension itself is of course a nod to the Christian belief that Jesus physically left the earth, rising into heaven alongside his apostles, and its 15 songs are run through with theological imagery. Stevens sings directly of Jesus and the Lord, of the redeemer and believers, of communion and rapture, and the structure of the record apparently echoes the Biblical narrative. To sing of God in these days of plague, and in a year in which so much of the US election might pivot on Christian faith, seems timely rather than arcane.
The album culminates in the track “America”, which Stevens released as a single this summer, describing it as “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”. At more than 12 minutes it moves first like a synthesised chain-gang and on to an iridescent climax, while its lyrics dismantle the promised land, the worshipped, the dream. Apparently begun in 2014, around the time of Carrie & Lowell, it feels like an addendum to the rest of the record; while Stevens sings of unrest and unease, at moments the song offers a kind of sonic flashback to the pre-Trump, pre-Covid era, as if to suggest not only the possibility of sweeter times, but also to remind us of the other side of Stevens himself.
It is the variousness of Stevens’ work that has long set him apart. It once seemed remarkable that the artist behind the pared-down Seven Swans would find the splendour of Illinois, let alone the experimental textures of The Age Of Adz or Enjoy Your Rabbit. Amid it all there has always been a temptation for audiences to try to locate the ‘real’ Stevens, as if delicate confessional vignettes are somehow more truthful than electronic aggression. This is surely a fool’s errand – there is no reason an artist cannot be both, if not more. On this sometimes obstinate, sometimes sublime record, Stevens shows he contains multitudes.