The ever-prolific indie music staple Sufjan Stevens has returned with his eighth studio record The Ascension. After a strong decade that saw releases such as the joyous techno-pop experiment The Age of Adz (2010) and the nearly impeccable folk eulogy Carrie and Lowell (2015), Stevens has returned to the electropop genre. The result this time around is somewhat of a mixed bag.
The Ascension strikes a brooding and anxious tone as Stevens conveys much of the dread that comes along with living in 2020. He even goes as far as proposing the end of the world in “Death Star” as he goads, “Death star into space / Vandalize what you create / Trash talk, violate / Go on, wipe that look o! your face.” While he definitely captures the anxiety our socio-political climate provides, the album isn’t dynamic enough to justify its 80 minute duration. The Ascension starts strong with highlights including the melancholy dance track “Video Game” and the spacious and pretty “Tell Me You Love me.” From there though, the album comes to a screeching halt.
“Die Happy” takes the cake as the worst example of self-indulgence with Stevens singing the lyric “I want to die happy” for nearly six minutes straight. For most of the rest of the album, the tracks just sort of blend with each other—none of them are bad but none stand out. While the songs are impeccably produced and Stevens' reliable talent is on display, the album would have benefited from trimming much of its filler.
However, this sentiment is not true for the final two tracks, “The Ascension” and “America,” which are two of the best songs in Stevens’ entire discography. “The Ascension” is the clear highlight of the album, which sees Stevens singing a stunning elegy of a life lived for oneself. The song is a gorgeous, elusive, powerful, and a complete tour-de force. It is followed up by the ambitious “America” where he pushes against the anger, hate, and societal devolution in our country. Despite all of his troubles, he ultimately sings, “I am broken, I am beat / But I will find my like a Judas in heat / I am fortune, I am free.” And as he fights the acquiescence to cynicism, the music bursts into pure energy halfway through the track and “ascends” as Stevens repeatedly echoes “Don't do to me what you did to America.” For an album that spends a massive amount of time concerned with the anxiety and depression of our era, Stevens ends the album with the glimmering possibility for redemption, both for ourselves and for our country.
Oross is a junior in the College studying English and Film and Media Studies.