The Age of Adz: We Can Do Much More Together
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.”
Wonderful review Drew, I’ve listened to this album at LEAST twenty-five times already, but I’m already beginning to listen to it again after that review. It just opened my eyes to many of the themes and ideas in the lyrics, that I want to look at and analyze myself now. I get so caught up into his music, that I often find myself only catching key parts of lyrics, but missing big chunks, haha. I whole-heartedly agree that this album is purely honest and a dark journey through church, but it’s still absolutely great. And I see where you are coming from on feeling it can be “self-indulgent,” but in all honesty the electronic self-indulgence floods me in his emotion and where he’s coming from, whereas the same self-indulgence in an orchestra setting would have me bored.
Good review, Dan. I think we’re kind of on the same wavelength, that he’s struggling with his desire for spiritual authenticity. I’d like to take it a little farther, though– I’d argue that with all the love songs and struggles with relationships on the album, a few key clues show that he’s struggling with homosexuality, and, therefore, his entire identity. Take a close listen to the lyrics of “Futile Devices” and “I Want it All” and try and see what I’m getting at.
Way to review, Dan/Drew! Drew/Dan. Dangerdrew.
Ezra, if you have picked up “gay clues” as astutely as you picked up the author of this review’s name…well, back to the drawing board old chum!
@Austin. Thanks for the feedback buddy. I am glad this review helped you. I generally have the same experience with Sufjan songs–I resonate with a line such as the ending of Vesuvius and think the song is about one thing until I consider the lyrics as a whole more closely. Certainly my take on the album is not definitive, though I feel like I have a much closer grasp on the overall theme than I did previously.
@Ezra, no worries on the name mix-up lol. With regard to your comment, I have heard the Sufjan is gay rumor before, but there is no basis to it other than a few songs he wrote about friendship that have been interpreted otherwise. I think that is the case with Futile Devices. Sufjan has a tendency to sing about friendships (“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades”) and even familial relationships in romantic terms ( ).
“Futile Devices,” I think that is a song about a friendship that is dear to him, so dear that he wants to say, “I love you” but finds words to be futile devices in expressing how valuable the friendship is to him. I see this as about friendship because he says at the end, “I think of you as my brother, though that sounds dumb.”
I assume you are referencing “All for Myself.” To be honest, musically, it is one my favorite tracks on the album, I can’t make heads or tails of it lyrically though–my initial thought on my first few lessons was that it was a personal song in which Sufjan deals with being himself in the midst of so much public attention. “Now that I am Older” is clearly referencing a strong romantic relationship with a girl that he reflects on and if I am right that that song is a reflection on the relationship that relationship that did not end mutually in “I Walked,” then that song is about a girl too.
So I don’t think there is much to your assertion other than a few lines in All for Myself that could be interpreted that way. But who knows, you could be right.
The song references that I meant to put in parentheses but failed to were “Size to Small” (about friendship) and “Sister” (both from the Seven Swans album) … sorry about that. I think “Chicago” even speaks of friendship in rather romantic terms, but I don’t think its about a romantic relationship. I hope that makes sense.
One of my favorite things about Sufjan is how his loving descriptions of friendships seem to rub against the grain of the culture, even in the face of being judged to be “gay” by liberals and fundies alike. It’s a risk worth taking in the name of authenticity, and it’s honorable in my eyes.
I actually hadn’t picked up on any of the “Sufjan’s gay” rumors either, not from his other albums, at least. I don’t want to explore the issue for gossip or anything; I’m interested in the theological implications of his work, as he’s always packing so much theology into his songs. I think that the album is possibly about a personal struggle to reconcile homosexuality with Christianity, ultimately choosing to repent, and it’s a riveting drama that I think the rest of the critical community just can’t understand because they’ve largely ignored his faith.
I can definitely see that interpretation of “Futile Devices,” but in the context of the album, I guess I’m projecting my own interpretation onto that one. I think it’s a lot clearer in “All for Myself” (got that wrong, too– bleargh!) though. He’s clearly talking about time spent with a lover; it’s an extremely erotic song, and the final verse reads thus:
We set out once forget our shirts with hairy chests and well rehearsed
I want it all I want it all for myself
Out in the earth I smell of you
Of bathing boy, amazing you
I want it all, I want it all for myself
In “Now that I’m Older,” he’s definitely referring to a woman with the “your dress comes down” line. To me, it sounds like in that song, and in “Impossible Soul,” he’s explaining to some woman how he can’t reciprocate her love like she deserves. “I Walked” is completely gender-neutral in its lyrics.
But even beyond the love songs, it’s clear that he’s dealing with some heavy personal sin: “I Want to be Well” or “Vesuvius,” anyone? And then, in the centerpiece, “Get Real Get Right,” he states, “I know I’ve caused you trouble, I know I’ve caused you pain… I know I’ve always loved you… but I must do myself a favor and get real, get right with the Lord.” Male or female, he’s leaving a relationship because it’s been hurting his relationship with God. So the particulars of it- gay or straight- is definitely ambiguous enough throughout the album, but I lean towards the former, because it appears to be an issue that makes him question his entire identity, especially as a Christian.
To me, it really gets clinched by his use of perspective in the lyrics to the final section of “Impossible Soul.” He’s been talking to this woman about how she is “the lover of my impossible soul,” and he can’t be with her, and he ends with:
And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more together
Boy, we can do much more together
I gotta tell you, girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure
I gotta tell you, boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess together
Boy we made such a mess together
He first establishes that the “boy, we can do much more” is her talking to him with the phrase “and then you tell me…” Then, he establishes “I gotta tell you…” as the phrase that shows he is the one talking. So first he speaks to the woman in this romantic drama, then he speaks to the man: “Boy, we made such a mess together.”
I could be absolutely wrong, I know. It could just be a character he’s writing. But, as a person who wasn’t even aware of the gay rumors before I considered this interpretation directly from the source material, I think it makes the whole album, both artistically and theologically, a lot more cohesive and understandable.
@Rich, yes I agree. I appreciate that about Sufjan as well. David spoke of his friendship with Jonathan in similar terms and well people like to say they were more than friends as well … so there you go.
@Ezra, I am not going to try to speak for Sufjan, who knows you may very well be right. I may be wrong, but when I first heard “All for Myself” as I said, I thought it was about Sufjan dealing with all the public attention he has gotten and the temptation to “want it all for [himself].” Thus I took the “It wasn’t about me it was only a stone in my shoe” and “We set out once with folded shirts, with hairy chest and well rehearsed” to be referencing Sufjan’s performances etc. The reference to the “bathing boy” could be a reference to a less mature self he is trying to leave behind but still smells of. Again, that is just another possibility. You could very well be right.
Sufjan certainly seems to be dealing with past relationships in Impossible Soul but whatever relationships he is referencing, the point of that song seems to be that he is waking up to his own selfishness and seeing the transcendnt perfect love of God:
Thus the line:
Seems I got it wrong, I was chasing after something that was gone
To the black of night, now I know it’s not what I wanted at all
And you said something like, “All you want is all the world for yourself”
But all I want is the perfect love
Though I know it’s small, I want love for us all
So I take the boy/girl bit as a plea to experience the transcendent love of God inside community.
I should also say that the “Sufjan is gay” rumors are nothing more than that, rumors, there hasn’t been a single credible source (it was all through interpretation of songs that I think are about friendship) that has reported that rumor to be true–so I kinda feel guilty that I mentioned it because I don’t want to spread those rumors any more since they are indeed just rumors.
Finally, I suppose we should remember that the cultural backdrop for this album was a schizophrenic self-proclaimed prophet–so its hard to speak with any absolute certainty as to what some of these songs are about–if the speaker in each of these songs is Sujfan, he certainly sounds schizophrenic sometimes.
In the end, I don’t think we really disagree on anything here. Don’t know the man, so I can’t claim to know anything about his sexuality, don’t know if the album is written from his perspective (‘cept for when he addresses himself on “Vesuvius”), and, as I said, I hadn’t even heard any of those rumors before I started formulating this interpretation of the album. It’s just one possible explanation of what all the inner turmoil in these lyrics is about, for either him or whichever character he’s writing about, and I’m completely open to any others.
Yes–I know you had not heard those rumors, I was apologizing for bringing them up because I don’t want to perpetuate petty rumors–but I know you were not doing that.
I get the feel that most of these songs are about Sufjan, as they seem focused on overcoming selfishness and learning to be one’s self. But yeah, you could be right, I just think “All For Myself” is the only song where I personally see that possibility and I think that song could be interpreted a bit differently. All that said, yeah you could be right and in the end its still about confession and authenticity and transcendent love that can only be experienced in community.
Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, they are always welcome.
In concert last week, Sufjan explained that the song “Get Real Get Right” was essentially written from Royal’s perspective (this was my third Sufjan show in four years, and that’s the most he’s ever talked in concert). If you get the chance, go see him (this album HAS to be experienced live) and that will provide some insight … but also beg so many more questions (he does a lot of dancing during the show, which seems both genuine and ironic at various points).
micah makes a good point,
I am a christian and really love sufjans music. from my point of view in music it is extremely hard to discern what is worship to God or “meditatory”, or ruminative or “soulish”.
for me the album/songs that falling most into the worship/meditation camp is seven swans, with some songs on michigan, the original and latest delighted people tracks
So he can write songs that are worshipful.
Age of Adz has a few bits to it which could easily be mistaken for someone saying they are homosexual, but the primary purpose of the album seems to be to describe a boy-girl relationship breakdown. It is worshipful in places, soulish in places
these are the main sticking points:
1 futile devices: It would be really easy to avoid raising the question by just singing sister instead of brother.
4 I walked: I went wild with the breast of a dog…… ‘dog’ being biblical slang for sexual deviants.
9 all for myself: basically the whole hairy chest, selfishness, shoulderblade, bathing boy thing just doesn’t make sense as a story in anyway. Don’t really think it talks about gayness but it is an odd song.
10 I want to be well: “shall i kiss you even as you take me that way”, have had people describe gay sex to me using this terminology (I’m a dr).
11 the alternating boy we made such a mess/can do so much more thing is clumsy being sung by a man, the end of the song where he sings “girl I want nothing less than pleasure” struck a weird note because it seems to reject the girl again after the make up.
Owl and the tanager. again would go in the same bracket of really odd song as all for myself. there are a lot of inexplicable vague elements.
Now as to whether any of this is important, the modern opinion is to say no. I think it is important to me though, I invest a lot in listening to this stuff and there is a certain trust invested in the christian songwriter by the christian listener to take them closer to Jesus. If he does turn out to be a practicing homosexual then I could listen to and like his music fine, but probably wouldn’t be able to invest as much emotion/joy/resonance when he sings on spiritual things, and I would look elsewhere for spiritual medicine.
For the record I love the album
I agree with Ezra. I have always found certain Sufjan songs to be telling the story of his homosexual relationships. Obviously they are open to interpretation but I find it strange that people opposed to this idea just claim outright that they are male/female relationships he is singing about even though there is no real evidence to show this. The most that’s said in Age of Adz is the mention of a dress in one song. My question is, why is it so important to keep mentioning these ‘rumors’ as bad things? And also, it is as much a ‘rumor’ that he’s straight as it is gay because i certainly haven’t seen any evidence proving either way
@Steven who mentioned the “rumor” as bad?
Generally rumors are things we should be very careful with because generally a rumor is not based in empirical fact–that seems like something we should be wary of. The point that was made above was that many of these songs may not be about romantic love–that is something worth mentioning, though I could be convinced that Ezra is right.
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