Album Review: The Ascension by Sufjan Stevens

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Sufjan Stevens is a singer, songwriter, and producer from Detroit. I reviewed his Aporia project with his step father earlier this year, and I was disappointed. After hearing that, I was wondering what direction he was going to move in, but I actually enjoyed this album a lot more. With several studio albums, it’s no surprise that he has ventured into other genres of music. The Ascension marks his eighth solo studio album.

The first track from the album is Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse. It opens up with some odd chopped up vocal samples. My first thought that this was something that Bon Iver or Baths would create. It definitely tells us that he is moving in a new direction with this album. Not disappointed, but I know it’s going to be different and it’s going to take some getting used to. I actually enjoy this track, but it’s strange hearing his voice on something like this. Lyrically, I’m either getting a religious sort of vibe, or a political vibe with the water crisis in Flint or the current injustices across the globe. The track slowly ends with the beat getting a little bit more distorted, then completely cutting out.

Run Away With Me features Sufjan’s voice reverbed and echoed. The instrumentation is just so soft and haunting throughout the track. You can hear the strings and a soft percussion in the background. There seems to be a slight twist of melody/beat at the very end. The track seems to be Sufjan trying to convince this girl to run away with him and start a new sort of life. He convinces her after all of the bad things are over, there will be a new life on the horizon.

Video Game was one of the more recent promotional singles for this album. This is actually one that I paid close attention to, mostly because it was much shorter than the first single. Since the title of the track is Video Game, it does have some elements and aspects of video game music, such as the 8-bit like sound in the background. Besides the reference to the Depeche Mode track, Personal Jesus, Sufjan talks about how you shouldn’t be focused on the ‘likes’ of social media. Don’t base your life or happiness on other people’s approval.

Lamentations opens up with some industrial like percussion, and then has some odd sound bits thrown into the mix. Surprisingly, this is the shortest track on the album, just over three and a half minutes in length. Not really digging the instrumentation on this track, just seems like a lot of random sound bits that are thrown together with no organization. The strings and vocals are a nice mix, but the ‘experimental’ aspect doesn’t add any value to the track. The message of the track seems to focus on the future as well as having ‘human kindness.’

Tell Me You Love Me opens up with a soft and quiet piano repeating the same line. The instrumentation remains pretty minimal through the first half of the track, but there is a call and response going on with the lyrics for most of the track. He seems to throw in the words ‘my love’ or ‘tell me you love me’ through various parts of the track. The real power and beauty of the track is the last half when it just let’s loose with the wall of vocals. A lot of people seem to point to religion with the meaning of the track.

Die Happy opens up with some eerie synth notes that seem to carry the track forward. The entire track just has this eerie feeling to it with several instruments coming in later. You have a weird, radio-like transmission that twists and changes in sound early on in the track. You eventually get this weird, vibed out synth part halfway through the track, as well at the very end. Also, when I say the lyrics are minimal in nature, I truly mean they are minimal. The only lyrics for this track are, “I wanna die happy,” which is repeated over and over. That of course has brought on memes that brought a few chuckles to my day.

Ativan opens up with some quiet, electronic drum beats with some more strange electronic synths. This is definitely one of the more experimental parts from the album. It doesn’t really have much direction, which kind of throws me off since most of the album has had some sort of direction and leading. The end of the track has a bit more direction with the string outro. On the bright side, there is more going on lyrically compared to the last track. Ativan is actually a name of a prescription to treat anxiety. While he does make comparisons to feeling like a child in the first half of the track, he talks about how Ativan calms him down and keeps him from overthinking.

Ursa Major is another quick, just over three and a half minute track. It usually layers itself with strings during his singing parts, while having some tidbits of sound bites thrown in there during the non singing parts. However, during the chorus, we get the call and response type thing going on again, just like what we saw in Tell Me You Love Me. However, here, he is talking about how he wants to love this person. The entire track definitely has a religious tie in with it, and also throws in Ursa Major which is a constellation that includes the Big Dipper.

Landslide brings me back to what I loved from the album from the start. I was a bit disappointed by some of the middle tracks, but this is another track that just draws me back in. We have a bit more direction, and we have some 8-bit sounding instrumentation which has been previewed on earlier tracks. Sufjan Stevens really works with the chorus of the track and makes it this huge, grand point of the track, and potentially the entire album.

Gilgamesh keeps on using the eerie synth and 8-bit sound that we have been used to since the beginning of the album. When the vocals come in, it sounds very distorted and reverbed to give a ghost-like effect. It’s not for the entire track, but it has its times where it comes in and out. As for the instrumentation, there are some more industrial like sounds that are introduced at the end of the track. The track has a connection with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Death Star definitely caught me off guard for a second. Definitely thought this was a Star Wars reference at first, but I don’t see much regarding it, except maybe the last minute-ish of the track. This is also more energetic than most of what I’ve heard on the rest of this album, especially with the heavy percussive beats. From what I’ve looked at for the lyrics, this has a lot do with climate change as well as keeping the Earth green. With lyrics talking about vandalizing and ‘trash’ talk, it’s easier to make that connection.

Goodbye To All That had a somewhat smooth transition from the last track with the similar percussive beat. It also shares the ‘I’m your ticket tonight’ lyric from Death Star. This track just does a complete 180 in tone, with lyrics and part of the instrumentation. While the last track was much darker, this one looks at things in a more positive light. He talks about how he’s lucky to be alive and is saying goodbye to all of the bad things in his life.

Oddly enough, the beginning instrumental of Sugar reminds me of some stuff Tycho would release, except more chopped up and edited. After the three minute introduction, it tones a bit and Sufjan Stevens comes in with his soothing vocals. The instrumental really is a masterpiece with the different things that have been layered on here. I could care less about some of the vocal parts, especially with the call and response chorus.

After that, we have the title track, The Ascension. You don’t really know what you are going to get with a title track with albums. While I have said several tracks are stripped back and minimal, this is really one of the most stripped back tracks with just a piano (some string parts later in the track), and then his vocals. However, there are some vocal effects thrown in there. Sufjan continues to push the religious meaning of the album here with rising up when he dies. I would honestly be okay if the album ended after this track.

The last, final, and longest track on the album is America. This comes in at a whopping twelve and a half minutes. I briefly listened to this track when it first came out, but I didn’t really go digging into it that much. Mostly because my short attention span makes it harder for me to listen to long tracks unless I’m driving somewhere. However, there were some memes floating around about this track as well, so I guess it has that going for it. Back to the music, it really set up what we would be hearing on this album since it has several elements that were showcased earlier. He talks about how this track is a protest song against, ‘the sickness of American culture in particular’.

Favorite Tracks: Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse, Run Away With Me, Tell Me You Love Me, Landslide, Death Star, The Ascension

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