Music

On The Ascension, Sufjan Stevens Is Born Again, but as What?

The new album is political, but it’s no protest record.

Sufjan Stevens playing guitar and singing into a microphone
Sufjan Stevens performs onstage at the Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“There’s no time for innocence,” Sufjan Stevens sings on the opening track of The Ascension, his first solo album since 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. The song, called “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” is explicitly a prayer (“Lord, I need deliverance”) that also sets the emotional tone for a protracted 80-minute voyage through desperation, rage, pleasure, and transcendence—though not in any such neat, cathartic order.

That early disavowal of naïveté stood out for me on a record the now–45-year-old longtime indie-or-what-have-you darling has said that for him is unprecedently “political and bossy and bitchy.” I wondered whether he’d at all call to account his white, Christian self amid the havoc being wreaked disproportionately by putatively Christian white Americans. He’s right that this is no moment for pretensions to blamelessness. And I was especially alert to that hazard because earlier in Stevens’ career, his apparent cultivation of an aura of guileless purity was what made me wary of him.

In the mid-2000s, onstage and on albums such as Michigan and Illinois (which launched a PR-stunt conceit about making albums for all 50 states that many fans took all too seriously), Stevens tended to come off like a liberal Christian youth group leader cajoling listeners alternately to get in touch with their feelings and to sing along with show tunes. With songs like 2005’s “Chicago,” I could never deny his musical gifts, but I also couldn’t stop eye-rolling at his penchant for tour outfits like multicolored angel wings. When he later told Pitchfork that “some of my most profound spiritual and sexual experiences were at a Methodist summer camp,” it was the least surprising interview revelation ever—except for the part where he said “sexual.” To my ears, most of Stevens’ music seemed averse to incorporating the messy physical aspects of human experience, maybe due to his faith’s long history of setting the spirit at war with the flesh, or perhaps because it would clash with the mood of whimsical childishness at which so much of his work seemed to aim. Even when he sang about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, it was hard to take seriously because it was couched in the social-studies-class-friendly context of the imaginary “states project,” reducing the subject to just another curious fact about Illinois, like UFO sightings and the Sears Tower, but with added mischievous shock factor. And when he wasn’t staging happy-clappy revues, he was playing tremulous, reverent acoustic music, as on the Seven Swans album, whose vulnerabilities still felt studied and removed.

None of that might have counted against Stevens so much if it hadn’t been part of a pernicious tendency of the period. This gauzy idealization of childishness seemed endemic to indie rock of the time (think of early Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire, for instance), particularly among artists often grouped with Stevens as psychedelic folk or “freak folk,” such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Animal Collective. Individually I admired many (not all) of these artists, but collectively they seemed to be staging a kind of privileged retreat from the dystopic realities of post-9/11 America while claiming it as resistance. It recollected the worst solipsistic flower-child affectations of 1960s hippies and flattered and indulged their audiences’ insular LiveJournaling sensitivities. In Stevens’ case, that was enhanced by the traces of Jesus People religiosity. My reaction to his faith was admittedly too knee-jerk, but I was particularly put off by his connection with the Danielson Famile, a group that blended elements lifted from so-called outsider music (such as Daniel Johnston) with folk-mass-style sounds and theatrical costumes. It read at first like kitschy performance art, then more and more like evangelism under hipster cover—a 2000s sequel to the convert-seeking 1970s day-glo children’s music of the Jesus Movement.

Eventually these stances had much of their viability knocked out by the trinity of the Obama election, the 2008 recession, and the subsequent Occupy movement, not to mention how the rest of the music landscape was shifting in turn. Stevens’ response was to lay down his banjo and make 2010’s The Age of Adz, a noisy electronic album that at the time struck me as an awkward effort to catch up to indie’s growing awareness of pop, with clumsy beats and a strained tone I traced to his reflexive disdain for the worldliness of mass culture. (There’s still some of that on The Ascension, as I’ll get to momentarily.)

Later, Stevens said that record represented “getting much more in touch with my physical self” after going through serious health issues, making the results “obsessed with sensation” to the point of “hysterical melodrama.” It’s an album I want to return to after hearing this new one, to listen past the rudimentary beat-making and overdone surfaces for that painful metamorphosis. Because what came next (aside from his frequent instrumental and novelty side projects, such as 2012’s Christmas song collection Silver & Gold) was a record that confronted the woundedness so much of his work had seemed to acknowledge only in its suppression. It was also one that perhaps explained and exorcised the earlier specter of arrested development. And speaking of conversions, in terms of Sufjan Stevens fandom, it was mine.

Carrie & Lowell, released in 2015, was a raw, close-up memoir of Stevens’ difficult, scattered childhood, with (but mostly without) a mother with severe mental health issues, written and recorded in the wake of her death. It’s no doubt unoriginal of me to pair it with the Mountain Goats’ 2005 tour de force, The Sunset Tree, about John Darnielle’s youth under the roof of an abusive stepfather (and likewise made after his death), but it does have a comparable force, and it drew similar acclaim. Yet in Stevens’ story, the stepfather, Lowell Brams, is unusually enough its hero, a mentor who, when he could, fostered Stevens’ nascent artistry and would later even go on to partner with Stevens in founding his Asthmatic Kitty music label. (The two also co-created a quasi–New Age instrumental album, Aporia, earlier this year.)

Carrie & Lowell also illuminated Stevens’ attachments to the leftovers of ’60s counterculture, coming from hippie parents prey to the excesses and estrangements of the time. That included his biological father’s involvement in alternative religion, if you couldn’t guess from Stevens’ Eastern mysticism–appropriating given name and his inherited spiritual questing. If his early records echoed folkie preciousness and Summer of Love exuberance, and Age of Adz was kind of a jumbled prog rock–ish stab at significance, then Carrie & Lowell was his early-1970s-style singer-songwriter confessional, à la Joni Mitchell on Blue or Bob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks.

In that shadow timeline, I’m tempted to propose that The Ascension would be Stevens’ equivalent of mid-to-late-1970s post-Watergate records of malaise and disillusion, such as Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s Winter in America, Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and anything by Warren Zevon or Randy Newman or Steely Dan; you could put early CBGB punk in there too. The Ascension certainly shares their atmospheres of lost hopes and a nation in shambles. But the comparisons won’t stand, not just because the album is not up to that high level, but more positively because one of the apparent effects of Stevens having reckoned with his past is that he’s been able to wake up fully into the present. It’s a rude awakening, of course, given what that moment looks like, but what Stevens has made from it is no throwback. It’s a mature reflection on personal and social crises and how they intersect, assembled in equal parts from current sounds and from his own idiosyncratic lexicon.

No doubt to some fans’ dismay, the album finds Stevens reconciling with pop, complete with songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 2020 “chill beats” or “sad dance” Spotify playlist. Stevens told Vanity Fair this week that one of his inspirations was Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” for its “so over it” self-possession. But elsewhere, he evokes 1980s and 1990s electronic music, from Depeche Mode on “Video Game,” to Nine Inch Nails on the more gnarled “Ativan” and “Gilgamesh,” to the Pet Shop Boys on perhaps my favorite track, “Goodbye to All That.”

That song references Joan Didion’s famous 1967 essay that became the template for every “leaving New York” narrative to come—and thus nods to Stevens’ own recent departure from the city for the Catskills. This came a couple of years after his rental-market eviction from his long-standing Brooklyn studio and office, which required him to craft more music in his apartment. Apart from his obvious desire to make a sonic turnabout from Carrie & Lowell, that change of environment is part of why the bulk of the music on The Ascension was made by Stevens solo on synthesizers, drum machines, and his own impressively varied multitracked vocals. (Multi-instrumentalist Casey Foubert joins him on most of the songs, supplemented by guest spots from the arresting drummer James McAlister, the National guitarist Bryce Dessner, and underground Norwegian studio icon Emil Nikolaisen, who’s credited for playing what’s only described as “black magic.”) Stevens’ main tool is an array of Prophet polyphonic synthesizers—maybe he just couldn’t resist the scriptural overtones of the brand name, but their sound is heavily associated with 1980s pop as well. Still, “Goodbye to All That” includes lines that reinforce Stevens’ need to detach himself from nostalgia addiction, stating wryly: “Now that all of my dreams have been confiscated/ Circa 1975/ Now that it’s too late to have died a young man/ Well, I’m just glad that I’m still alive.”

The Ascension is also at times a sensuous, romantic album—even if the romance is ever in peril—that reminded me of recent alternative or bedroom pop (i.e., unpopular pop) by artists such as Perfume Genius, Christine and the Queens, Sophie, King Princess, Solange, and others who work the borderlands between introspection and danceability. Like 1980s synth-pop, that space is often a queer one, whether by artist declaration or audience affiliation, and in recent years, many fans have claimed Stevens for the queer canon in site comments and Reddit threads and the likes of the Facebook group “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God?” His 2018 Oscar nomination for writing songs for Call Me by Your Name boosted that association, and in 2019 he seemed to endorse the assumption quietly by releasing a pair of songs for Pride Month, along with a rainbow-motif T-shirt and a blog post about self-love and shame that quoted RuPaul and Jesus in the same breath. I’ve been left pondering how I for so long overlooked the possibility that the evasions as well as some of the stylistic flourishes that troubled me with Stevens may have been marks of a young Christian guy struggling with a taboo identity, although he still frustrates some LGBTQ+ fans by declining to address his sexuality directly.

Likewise, there might be confusion among some listeners who’ve been primed for a “political” album by Stevens’ recent interviews and by the first single released in July, the album’s 12-minute closing jeremiad-of-sorts, “America.” For a supposed “protest” song, even that’s a pretty weird one. Yes, early on it seems to announce the singer falling out of love with the country and to perhaps nod to the wide-eyed-simpleton pose of his “50 states” period patriotism with the line “I have traded my life/ For a picture of the scenery.” But from first hearing its key repeated line, “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” what struck me was the mysteriousness of the “you” being addressed here. It doesn’t parse well as Donald Trump or some other authority figure, especially considering that Stevens has said the song was originally drafted years before Trump’s election and the fact that after the first verse almost all the language is steeped in the sacred. “I have worshipped, I have cried/ I have put my hands in the wounds on your side,” Stevens sings, going on to call himself “a Judas in heat.” I’m inclined to imagine Stevens is addressing his fellow American Christians here, not disavowing his faith but severing himself from its corrupted institutional forms, along the pattern of his excoriating 2017 Washington Post op-ed that called it “heresy” to co-opt Christ to a nationalist cause. This is political, yes, but like Stevens’ approach to his sexuality, it’s not a form that adapts easily to the standard 2020 definition, easily interpreted through scrims of ready-made identities and trending catchwords and reference points. Not that such rallying cries can’t be artistically potent too, but Stevens is daring here not to preach to any preassembled choir, to portray himself in the throes of doubt (even utter nihilistic misanthropy in the sour, tedious “Death Star”), and challenge the listener to discover him there.

Throughout the record, there’s no escaping the way it’s haunted by God. Sometimes it’s in the long tradition across many cultures (not to mention generations of not-so-straight pastors and choir leaders) of weaving the erotic with the spiritually ecstatic, the heavenly savior with the earthly beloved. Hear, for example, how the romantic “Tell Me You Love Me” (which would have fit well into the Call Me by Your Name soundtrack) is echoed and answered in the more divinely directed “Ursa Major” refrain “I want to love you,” with the implied caveat that God doesn’t always make it easy. Occasionally it’s self-righteous, as on the “kids these days”–ish anti-technology single “Video Game.” But then a song will come along that questions what claim Stevens has to righteousness. At its peaks, for example on the song “Landslide,” there’s a running tension between the search for personal connection and the terror and beauty of the sublime. Plus, Stevens’ newfound appreciation for pop (complete with song titles that are allusions to other song titles, like “Run Away With Me,” “Video Game,” and “Landslide” itself) has clued him in to the benefits of using everyday language, repetition, and even cliché—which helps puts a check on his past weakness for overwritten lyrics.

The unfortunate exception to me is in the title track, “The Ascension,” perhaps the record’s most direct and “Old Sufjan”–style song, which seems to try to turn the record’s conflicted subtexts into expository text and, on my few listens so far, comes up with a garbled mess. By contrast, the single-line “Die Happy” evokes perfectly the record’s running negotiation of the balance between personal fulfillment and social or existential disaster. Stevens liltingly reiterates the mantra “I wanna die happy” over chiming keyboards increasingly menaced by metallic chirps and flanges and stings. This basic yearning stands alone against a grander backdrop that becomes more and more overwhelming as the song continues—until it flares out into a dance party.

How many listeners will find their way to those moments on The Ascension is another question, amid all its sprawling loops and textures in an hour and 20 minutes. I expect that I’ll eventually trim quite a few tracks from future listens. On the other hand, I will add the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh,” which didn’t make the album but is a gorgeous and initially deceptive adaptation of the same true cult story told in Netflix’s popular Wild Wild Country but with a deeper, subtler sympathy for the devotees led astray. Meanwhile, if Stevens loses some of his own devotees here in his pursuit of the urgent complexity of the moment, he could always dust off the banjos and ukuleles for his own back-to-the-land album, made in his new Catskills homestead. And I’ll be ready to hear it, as long as, by then, there’s any land left to get back to.