A lifeless descent into the electronic abyss makes for an unfortunate and unlikely misfire from Sufjan Stevens.
The eighth studio album from chameleonic indie superstar Sufjan Stevens is actually the songwriter's second full length release this year following Aporia, a New Age instrumental effort courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist and his step-father Lowell Brahms. Aporia was a plodding affair consisting of indistinguishable ambient synth pieces that felt half-baked and lacking in purpose, but could be forgiven all the same as a harmless detour for Sufjan - as a record conceived to mark the retirement of Brahms who co-founded the Asthmatic Kitty label with his step-son, Aporia was seemingly no more than a low key side release and nothing of particular import in the towering discography of its mastermind creator.
So it is an unfortunate realization indeed upon hearing The Ascension that in fact Aporia now appears to have been served as the undercooked appetizer to a similarly dismal main course. Both albums share a lot of the same characteristics, and none for the better - a certain 'going through the motions' directionless quality, curiously flat production, an unforgivably overlong runtime and a general sense of indulgence past the point of common sense. Most shocking of all perhaps is the overall feeling of apathy that you can sense in Stevens throughout The Ascension's monotonous eighty minutes, as the trailblazing icon responsible for such masterworks as Illinois cuts a supremely lethargic figure throughout this fifteen track electronic wasteland.
There are fleeting moments of escape from the lifeless wall of synths that smother the album whole, with an exceptional title track marking the standout moment of the album as Sufjan slowly builds the most genuinely emotive instrumental and vocal performance on the album to a subtle climax, while 'Run Away With Me''s delicate electropop and the sticky refrain of second single 'Video Game' make for decently engaging moments despite still undoubtedly going down as throwaway fodder in the overall context of Sufjan's output to date. 'Make Me An Offer I Can't Refuse' kicks the album into life with a sense of urgency that the remainder of its tracklist can't keep up with.
Lead single and epic closer 'America' is certainly topical in its attempt to hold the nation to task for its current state, but it doesn't say anything we haven't already heard said more effectively in recent times. It also doesn't do nearly enough to earn its foreboding length, a problem symptomatic of the entire album. The worst offenders however are surely 'Die Happy' and baffling single choice 'Sugar', as their unrelenting monotony results in an undesirably hypnotic effect in the sense that the listener is more likely to find themselves drifting off to sleep than to a higher plane as was perhaps intended.
For all its flaws, you can't say The Ascension is uninspired exactly - Sufjan seems to be working from a place of deep thought as he meditates on societal and political problems, but it feels as though these feelings of despair and exhaustion at the modern world have gotten the better of him and translated into a lack of motivation, resulting in a sense of any real feeling or emotion being lost in the shuffle amidst the most underwhelming production of his entire career, while a distant and cold vocal performance throughout only adds to the alienating nature of The Ascension overall.
After finishing my initial listen of The Ascension, I hit shuffle on Sufjan and landed on 'The Only Thing' whereupon I was transported back to the searing intimacy and devastatingly gorgeous emotional power of Carrie and Lowell's majestic love story. It was a stark reminder of the total lack of any feeling in The Ascension's cold instrumentation and frustratingly vague performance. Four years after an all time great, to get this egregious waste of Sufjan Stevens' enormous talent is massively disappointing. What a shame.
3.5 / E
Best Tracks: 'Run Away With Me'/'Video Game'/'The Ascension'
Like this? Try these:
Vespertine - Bjork
Another Green World - Brian Eno
The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens