Of Sound Mind | Sufjan Stevens’ “The Ascension”

Of Sound Mind is a biweekly blog about new albums, old albums, forgotten albums, overrated albums and any other type of listening experience from staff writer Lucas DiBlasi.

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Shruti Talekar | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Lucas DiBlasi, Staff Writer

To judge whether music captures the feel of a cultural moment is a lot of pressure to put on musicians. It’s essentially a non-starter — humans are too complex and varied for one piece of art to capture an entire nation.

But even with important caveats, Sufjan Stevens’ new album, “The Ascension,” released Sept. 25, captures the pervasive and almost-Lovecraftian horror (and varied coping mechanisms) in current American culture with lyrical and musical perfection. Otherworldly sounds ooze in and out of Stevens’ brilliantly structured songs, while sweeping percussive beats and synthesizers underscore lyrics that seek God, love or any other way out of the present moment in what amounts to a beautiful, album-long scream.

Artists are constantly consuming various cultures and regurgitating them, acting as a sieve and a funnel for the national zeitgeist. Creative types tend to skew liberal, and I’ve been wondering about and watching their reaction to the Trump presidency for almost four years now. Within the bubble that I — a young, liberal college student — inhabit, there is a brand of defensive nihilism that’s been adopted in the face of climate change, wealth and racial inequality and the current political climate.

“The Ascension” reflects and ruminates on this strange postmodernism better than any art I’ve seen in the last four years. Stevens has always had a penchant for creating albums that are novels unto themselves, whether the scope is as small as poignant reflections on his upbringing in “Carrie and Lowell” (2015) or as big as an entire state in “Michigan” (2003) or “Illinois” (2005).

But “The Ascension” is, in scope and music, most like his 2010 album “The Age of Adz,” as both feature estranged lyrics, strange bleeps and bloops, erratic drumming and bombastic production. Throughout both albums, Stevens’ voice often flips between his feathery mourning and harsher layers of dreadful yearning.

In the brilliant opening track, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” Stevens turns to asking for religious deliverance — “Lord I need deliverance/ Make me an offer I cannot refuse,” while the drums and synths pulse around him. The offer must not have been made, as in the second track he feels the need to search himself for disease and find redemption in a new lover.

The album only continues this theatrical bouncing between God and a lover, and sometimes both, because the alternative appears to be neither. Hopeless paralysis and drugged-out escapism dominate the moments where Stevens isn’t religiously devoting himself to a lover (or the Almighty himself). In “Ativan,” he sings, “Is it all for something? Is it all part of a plan?/ Tranquilize me, sanitize me, Ativan,” and in “Die Happy,” he wishes for a happy death over and over again, hopelessly.

One of the hallmarks of a great album, and great art in general, is inexhaustibility. When a picture is worth an infinite amount of words, and an album can reveal something new on the 1,000th listen, I consider them masterpieces. “The Ascension” is nothing if not dense — when there are no lyrics, the layered background voices, synths, guitars, drums and bass are megalith, and the lyrics are so full with biblical and poetic references as to be food for thought for years.
A movie that is great until the last few minutes is considered a failure — people will dismiss anything they don’t like the ending of, because endings are so incredibly important to stories. Where does such a dismally wonderful, religiously romantic album end up, at the end?

There is a small lull on the album before the penultimate track, which shares its title with the album, that has Stevens meditating on his own death over a piano-ish ballad. He sings that he was hoping for a religious meaning out of depression and anger, but “to everything there is no meaning/ A season of pain and hopelessness” and “I did it all with adoration/ While you killed it all off with your holy mess.”

The song fades out with a chorus of “What now?” before the final track, “America,” which is the linchpin of the album. “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” Stevens sings, before begging his lover not to “do to me what you did to America.” There are small glimmers of hope in and between the lines of the last two songs, but you have to search for them.

I won’t sit here and pretend to know exactly what this album is about, precisely what or who Stevens is singing about and what to do with that information. There is no one meaning to “The Ascension,” but to me it captures the postmodern situation of a fractured society and a fraying democracy staring down the barrel of pure nihilism.

And in some masochistic way, I cannot get enough of it. The music is a world unto itself, and the lyrics call out to be unpacked. The songs are genuinely fun to listen to and even feature Stevens’ take on pop in “Sugar” and “Video Game.” At the very least, the album gives companionship — someone else feels the terror, too, and not only that, they represented it with beautiful music for you.

In such an unholy new world, in the midst of crumbling and chaos and the search for redemption in yourself and others, “The Ascension” gets the American culture I am familiar with correct. And from me, it gets a sanctified 9.6/10.

Lucas DiBlasi is a music composition and digital narrative and interactive design double major. You can write to him at [email protected].

 

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