The Ascension is expectedly deep and rich, but it still offers surprises in Stevens’ biting, moodier voice and more pared down arrangements.
What exactly is Sufjan Stevens ascending on his latest album? Celebrity? Corporate attention? This current political moment? God? All that and more, quite possibly — though the 15 songs that comprise The Ascension’s 80-minute runtime aren’t really concerned with those sorts of particulars. Stevens wants answers, and he doesn’t really need to explain why or say from whom. At this point, we should be pretty familiar with the offending parties anyway (see above). The Ascension establishes its dynamic pretty quickly with an opener titled “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” — a song which, rather remarkably, manages to build up a big, appealing synth melody around the titular chorus. “Make Me an Offer…” posits the album’s entire perspective and aesthetic: both the pithily blunted lyrics and the decadent electronic compositions that adorn them. Stevens has offered up his own explanation for his writing of the song, describing it as “…giving God an ultimatum…,” which he surely is, but this admission coyly skirts around the anthemic expanse of both the track itself and of the songs that soon follow it.
Of course, this is likely by design, as The Ascension is a collection of songs composed with the seeming purpose of us projecting onto them. Which makes the album somewhat unprecedented for Stevens; the closest point of comparison would be 2010’s The Age of Adz, a foray into electronic instrumentation that The Ascension builds upon, for sure, but with only a partial commitment to digital aesthetics. The melodies on Adz were augmented and shaped by strings and piano, which are instruments that Stevens forgoes here; he only retains synths and drum machines. The pared-down arrangements are, at least in part, a matter of logistics (his other instruments were in storage from a move), but they also track with Stevens’s trajectory, a necessary recalibration after being caught up in the memeification of Call Me By Your Name. (That soundtrack foray made perfect sense, almost too much sense, suffering from the fact that hiring Sufjan must have come with a very specific expectation as to the type of song to deliver.)
The Ascension is no less rich nor deep than what we expect from Stevens, but it does replace some sad boy vibes with a voice that’s moody and biting. “Video Game” exemplifies this best; it’s an aloof dance track that most immediately seems to be a rejection of newfound celebrity, but that also bears the possibility of intimate and sociopolitical critique through its delightfully blunt chorus (“I don’t wanna play your video game”). And Stevens doesn’t leave us without pulling back the curtain a little bit, making the album’s title track its penultimate one, and ending on a verbose note that reasserts the artist’s Christian faith while admitting a lack of faith in much else. The song ends on a fitting note, an open-ended question that sums up the aggression, desperation, and optimism of The Ascension and of 2020: “What Now?”
Published as part of Pop Rocks | Q3 2020 Issue — Part 2.