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Sufjan Stevens’ music has always been inspired by America, be it American folklore, history, or geography, particularly on his two albums inspired by states Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005). This is probably what makes The Ascension such a stylistic difference, as Stevens makes a deliberate rupture with the Americana of his previous albums for something darker and more introspective.
Perhaps the most notable change is the sound of the music itself which rejects the folk instrumentation of Stevens’ previous album Carrie and Lowell (2015) for an electropop soundscape. The tone is set straight away on intro track ‘Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse’, which starts off with choral singing suddenly interrupted by synths, and ends with an extended one-minute instrumental outro with electronic percussions and singing synths. From there the album encompasses a wide soundscape from glitchy production (‘Ativan’ and ‘Death Star’) to dream pop (‘Sugar’) to even traces of new age and ambience (‘Die Happy’). Often the songs will feature extended instrumental outros allowing the various synths and electronic sounds to express the tone themselves. While these songs have a very different flavour to them as opposed to his folk music, electronic is a genre that Stevens has previously explored, and his songwriting skills have lost none of their talent in switching between genres, crafting songs which match the tone of the album and lead to some occasional really impressive sonical highlights.
The subject matter of the album feels undeniably heavy and is perhaps best expressed in the album’s 12-minute long closing opus ‘America’, which centres around the repeated haunting refrain of ‘don’t do to me what you did to America’, a plea of hopeless protest against a culture he once admired but now finds to contain a spreading rot. The song uses multiple relations to religious imagery and expression, which has a certain emotional resonance from an artist who has referred to himself as a Christian throughout his career and made frequent reference to it in his music, now finding himself in a country where the Church is being distorted into more of a political than spiritual identity. Stevens also turns an introspective gaze onto himself, pondering about the purpose of his life as he nears middle-age on track ‘Goodbye To All That’, and worries about the impact that his life will have had on those around him on the standout title track (which might just be one of the best songs of the year).
That said, this might also be his most overtly romantic album yet, with many songs featuring lyrics addressing a lover directly in a way often unseen in Stevens’ music. Not all of the relationships described are necessarily happy: see the protest against a difficult and manipulative lover in ‘Video Game’ or his attempts to reconcile a hurting relationship in ‘Sugar’, however it is ultimately the album’s romantic elements which give it it’s hope. Perhaps this is most clearly displayed on the track ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, in which Stevens spends the first 3 minutes of the track voicing his insecurities and worldly doubts while pleading for his lover to confirm their love for him, before in the last minute of the song the instrumental suddenly blossoms and swells as Stevens decides to choose to cling onto the love he has for them in spite of everything, placing his certainty in it.
The Ascension is not necessarily the Sufjan Stevens album that people expected, and certainly, for some, it may prove to be too much of a rupture in style. Yet musically it certainly reinforces the themes of the album as he rids himself of the style attached to Americana in exchange for ethereal electronics far removed from any set geography. Ultimately, it is the strength of Steven’s songwriting and some of the record’s emotional moments which make this another strong entry into Steven’s discography.