Sufjan Stevens has an uncanny knack for capturing the spirit of the U.S. Once pledging to make an album for each state of the union, Stevens built his fame on lovingly and painstakingly mythologizing the middle-American experience. After reaching an artistic peak in 2015 with “Carrie and Lowell” and experiencing the soul-shaking malaise of the present day U.S., Sufjan had nowhere else to go. So, he took a hammer to it all.
“The Ascension” is not as large of a musical departure as one might imagine. Although more known for his intense folk music (we in the Sufjan Cult call it his ‘Twing-Twang’ music), he has a deep career-spanning body of electronic music (‘Bleep-Bloop,’ of course). Stevens’ real departure is in the emotion of his work.
Stevens is not expressing the tender love of his home a la “Michigan,” or revealing the manic highs of psychotic depression like in “The Age of Adz;” he is depicting a seeping dread, one that threatens the very core of his being. In “America,” the very end of the album, Stevens pleads to both God and his fans, “Don’t do to me what you did to America”. He has an entire song where the only lyric is a haunting repetition of “I want to die happy”.
The music sounds good, too. An unlikely combination of existential dread and melodic EDM, the album hits its strides in songs like “Death Star,” “Ativan” and “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,’ where Sufjan manages to meld overwhelming electronica elements with sweeping “sad boy” lyrics that bring you to where he’s at: crying on the dance floor.
The album ends with a departure, however. The titular (and best) track has him accepting his fate, that he is incapable of fixing the world around him as it crumbles into chaos. This leads into “America,” where he lets his misery and hopelessness take form as the album fades into oblivion.
“The Ascension” is not without its stumbles, however. Songs like “Goodbye To All That”, “Gilgamesh” and “Ursa Major” are mostly forgettable and are unlikely to make it into your Spotify playlists. Even with its strengths considered, “The Ascension” lacks the thematic and emotional depth and musical consistency of his best works. It’s certainly no “Carrie and Lowell” or “Age of Adz.”
In the end, “The Ascension” is still a special record. A great depiction of the world we find ourselves in, I cannot more highly recommend lying down, putting your headphones in, and floating along on the hour and twenty minute runtime. Please, go forth and ascend.