Sufjan Stevens is striving for authenticity and encouraging us to come along. This is perhaps why Sufjan decided to take his new album, The Age of Adz, in a new direction to the disappointment of many of his fans. However, if you can get over the fact that this is not the California or New York version of Illinoise (don’t forget he gave us All Delighted People, which is much closer musically to Illinoise), what you will find is a coherent and personally authentic album with a consistent theme and a pitch-perfect ending.
Instead of telling the stories of a particular state, Sufjan tells personal stories under the guise of the prophetic visions of Royal Robertson, a Louisiana-based schizophrenic man who is self-proclaimed prophetic artist (the album art is Robertson’s). In this bizarre, spiritually charged context, Sufjan tells stories about personal struggles (“I Walked,” “Too Much”), reflects on how he has grown over the years (“Now that I am Older”), and confesses insecurity (“Vesuvius”) and fear of death (“I Want to be Well”).
Sufjan doesn’t hide his intentions. He tells us explicitly that he wants to “get real, get right with the Lord,” and he even goes so far as to tell us to “do yourself a favor and get real, get right with the Lord” (“Get Real, Get Right”). For Sufjan, as we have come to expect, this means making some very personal confessions. He is continually telling us about his struggles: “I’m insecure,” and “why does it have to be so hard?” (“Vesuvius”) and “I’ve got nothing left to love” (“I Walked”). If there is an overriding theme to the album it is a personal journey towards spiritual and emotional authenticity—an authenticity that is risky to let others see
Sufjan, follow the path
It leads to an article of imminent death
Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame
Or fall on the floor (Vesuvius)
“I Walked” and “Now that I am Older” are polar opposites that deal with failed relationships—they are one after the other for dramatic effect. “I Walked” is about a failed relationship that it appears Sufjan walked out of, only because the she “walked” and he confesses, “I won’t probably get very far.” He understands he shouldn’t feel this way and confesses, “I should not be so lost but I’ve got nothing left to love.” “Now that I am Older” is a reflection from an older and wiser Sufjan who realizes:
It’s different now I think
I wasn’t older yet
I wasn’t wise, I guess
Somewhere I lost whatever else I had
I wasn’t over you
I see it run inside itself
And then I called you out
I’m not so much older than I was
I’m feeling so much righter now . . .
So be it so of love
The title track, “The Age of Adz” is probably one of the most disarming songs for fans of the more folky Sufjan, but may lyrically be the most important track on the album. The song reflects Sufjan’s personal growth as it serves as an invitation for us to join Sujfan on His quest for authenticity:
We see you trying to
Be something else that
You’re not, we think you’re not
This is after all “the age … of eternal living,” which seems to indicate that how we live now has implications on eternity:
When I die, when I die
but when I live, when I live
I’ll give it all I’ve got …
I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing
Consumed by selfish thoughts
It’s only that I
Still love you deeply
It’s all the love I’ve got
Thus Sufjan seems determined to be himself for the remainder of his short time here. If my interpretation of this song is correct, it’s incredibly encouraging and I appreciate the invitation to join him in moving toward the freedom found in being yourself. Vesuvius warns against the dangers of being yourself and the rejection and hurt that will inevitably arise from such a quest. But in the end, Sujfan reminds himself of the consequences of living a lie and determines all the more to continue his journey.
The album ends with two songs that starkly contrast each other, “I Want to Be Well” and “Impossible Soul.” The darkness of the later is broken in the brightness of the former. “I Want to be Well” is the perfect illustration of why Sufjan’s album has been called “primal” and “explicit” as it deals with the harsh reality of death that will meet us all. In the face of inevitable death caused by “ordinary causes” Sufjan gravely determines that he wants “to be well.” If “I Want to be Well” is a desperate cry for rescue from a world corrupted by death, then “Impossible Soul” is encouragement in how to wait for such rescue. Sufjan seems to say that we face the darkness of this world with determination and by seeking authentic community as he warns against life in a “cage.”
The song builds appropriately to a choir joyfully singing with triumphant symphonic accompaniment the repeated refrain, “boy, we can do much more together (better give love, give love, give love).” And finally, perhaps as a nod to his folk-loving fans, Sufjan shifts from bright triumphant symphony to folk-driven reflection while continuing the same refrain. The 25 minute song ends with Sufjan delicately picking his banjo reflecting that “his burden is the weight of a feather” and reminding us that “boy, we can do much more together” and “girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.” This seems to be his way of telling us: don’t despair, I really have hope that we will make it through together. In short the album ends with a tremendous amount of hope and strength to face the darkness of the world equipped with love for God and for one another.
Behind all of Sufjan’s gritty honesty and insecurity, there is a deep seated belief in transcendent love experienced in community. That is the Christian life isn’t it? The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). What is so refreshing about this conclusion is that in getting there Sufjan covers some very dark terrain and doesn’t give us any false hope that it will be easy. The Age of Adz isn’t perfect. There are certainly beats and sounds that will grate on you and certainly some of the album feels a little self-indulgent (much like moments in The BQE). In the end, however, there are few albums that feel as honest and self aware as The Age of Adz. I find that the change of pace provides the perfect setting to express such self-awareness and thus a refreshing departure from the Sufjan of recent albums. I am glad Sufjan invited me on the journey, because I too believe “we can do much more together.”