A Portrait of the Artist in The Age of Adz
Sufjan Steven’s new album, The Age of Adz, officially comes out on Oct. 12. For those of us anxious souls who pre-ordered the CD (myself) or vinyl (Elijah), a link to download MP3’s of the tracks was available this past Tuesday. So I have listened to the album all the way through a few times and I wanted to post my initial reaction.
First of all, I experienced quite a bit of relief in listening to the album, because I was scared that I might not like it—that it would be too experimental (a la Enjoy Your Rabbit) to satiate my Sufyearning, or that it would somehow mark a decline in his songwriting career (the kind of artistic downturn pointed out in Trainspotting).
Indeed, it is neither of these things—the truth is, rather, that I absolutely love this album. It is different than his last few LP’s, so beware of your expectations, and it takes us into a new aural and thematic territory, so you will need to submit to the album as a guide rather than following your own map of where you think the work should go (if you’ve listened to his cover of “You Are the Blood,” you’ll know what to expect). Having said that, I want to share some interpretations of The Age of Adz which may or may not be completely legitimate, but rather represent my impulsive first responses to the work.
I haven’t read any reviews yet, but I saw in some pre-release material from Asthmatic Kitty that this album was not “built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).” However, I don’t believe that. I think that The Age of Adz actually is a concept album, but the “theme” of the album is quite simple: it is a self-portrait. This is no stunning insight, considering song titles like “I Walked,” “Now That I’m Older,” “All For Myself,” “I Want to Be Well,” as well as his self-address in “Vesuvius” (sounding like “Sufi-yan”) and his many references to himself on the album (even apologizing for being so self-critical) I believe that this album is deeply autobiographical, taking the listener all the way from an external experience of Sufjan’s that causes him to go deeper and deeper into himself, on a tour through his emotions, thoughts, religious impulses, raw desires (“id”), and finally into his “Impossible Soul.”
Somehow, I believe, the figure on the cover of the album represents Sufjan’s self-conception. All I know about this painting is that it is the work of an “outsider artist.” Does this reveal something about the way Sufjan sees himself? An outsider? To what? The painting is primitive, even child-like, somewhat dark and cultic, but also looking like a kind of superhero–in a word, conflicted. There is a possible pun in the name: “Adz” sounds like “odds”—is he at an age where he is at odds with something (clearly there is some reference to his sense of growing older)? “Outsider,” “at odds”—these seem to hint at some deep inner tension and alienation…but from what?
The realization of this autobiographical form caused me to reflect on the fact that most of his previous songs from the past decade had been in the form of storytelling (where he used first person description not to tell his OWN story, but rather to take on a fictional persona) or worked within a structural framework of a central external concept. This is not to say there were no autobiographical songs, which one may have found on A Sun Came or Seven Swans. However, the majority of his songs were distanced from his own self-expression through portraying a fictional persona, illustrating a Biblical scene, or depicting some historical narrative. Here we find Sufjan singing straight from his own soul with no personas, no “characters.” It is a cathartic and desperate work of self-expression.
The first song, “Futile Devices,” sets up some of the formal dimensions of the work. It begins with instrumentation that might make you think this album would be quite in line with his previous albums (the guitar melody/picking reminded me of the song “A Sun Came” in particular…later in “Futile Devices.” he references that he “sounds dumb” which takes us again back to a track on his first album, “Dumb I Sound”). He even begins by singing, “It’s been a long, long time…” perhaps alluding to the time span since his last lyrically-based LP. The song introduces the central conflict of the album in his feelings for a person whom he loves very much, but to whom he cannot express his passion. In fact, he ends the song by saying “words are futile devices.” Though this will be a lyrical album, the listener must look past the words to a deeper, more ineffable expression of feeling that runs beneath than the words—I believe the intricate instrumentation and emotional passion (the cracking and stretching of his voice) evident in this album are supposed to convey what words cannot. This first song helps transition us from his “indie-folk” albums into this more experimental, electronic sound, which we find in the primordial bubbling and scratches of the first 25 seconds of “Too Much,” which felt like a sonic version of the old Disneyland ride, “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” shrinking us to fit into the writer’s inner world.
Rather than analyzing song by song, I’ll just say that I perceived a great deal of internal conflict evident in the album in terms of Sufjan’s inability to express his love for someone and the deeper and more comprehensive self-analysis this feeling produces, leading to the exploration of his own emotional and spiritual complexity. I began to wonder why this was the case? What is so difficult about expressing his feelings, or why is he such a conflicted person? He says again and again in the second song, “There’s too much riding on that” in relation to the feeling of “too much love” (there is more repetition of lyrics on this album than he typically uses—perhaps revealing a hope that somehow what he feels can be revealed through saying the same thing over and over, or is it an exasperation that he can’t say what he feels, even though he says it over and over?) What is tormenting him? What is he afraid of?
Various possible explanations ran through my mind to these questions. I’ll share my intuitions, which sometimes don’t have much evidence, and am quite open to you debunking these theories (and my whole idea of the album as a self-portrait). When I get the album and lyrics, I would love to spend some more time considering the meaning and significance of this amazing album with many of my thoughtful friends…
So what are my theories to the central conflict I see in The Age of Adz? With what is he at “odds”?
- Does it have something to do with his adherence to Christianity? Does he feel like an outsider due to his faith? His religious commitment results in experiences like prohibition of certain activities, guilt, and the need to confess and receive forgiveness that perhaps other friends (and potential lovers?) cannot comprehend. Perhaps he is finding himself at odds with his faith itself as it impacts his relationships? His Christian morality also (potentially) results in his celibacy (which I saw evident in the juxtaposition of the lines “I’m not fucking around” and “And I want to be”) which could produce both internal and relational tension. So then this would mean that his feelings are complex because of his unique status as a high-profile Christian in a post-Christian world. Perhaps, but this doesn’t seem like the most compelling theory to me.
- Is it that he struggles with relational “attachment” (in line with the psychological notion of “attachment theory”) and so finds he cannot commit to someone even when he feels deeply attracted to them? Many of his earlier songs seemed to reveal issues with parents/family, so perhaps there are some abandonment issues or lack of relational stability in his history? This theory is more intuitive than it is substantiated by the lyrics…
- Is he in love with someone who is unavailable to him? Perhaps someone who is married or uninterested in him (which I personally would find hard to believe…come on, I have a man crush on him!)? Unrequited love can be powerfully debilitating, requiring evasions and disguises to remain around the romantic object, which cause considerable emotional torment and inability to outwardly express one’s thoughts and feelings. There may be potential here.
- I hesitate to offer this last theory, because it feels quite personal, but I wonder if Sufjan might be gay? This may sound sensational and I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily, but to understand this work, I have to be willing to consider this as a possibility, particularly since it would potentially be extremely difficult to experience these feelings as a Christian (consider Jennifer Knapp’s story). The first song, where the issue of undeclared love arises, seems to be written about a man. However, there is contrarily the conversation with a woman who seems to be the object of love in “Impossible Soul.” After listening to Morrissey’s repressed homosexuality for so long, I may simply be projecting this idea on Sufjan.
So those are my theories on the album for your perusal, dismissal, or development. I hope you enjoy exploring the depths of this masterful work as much as I have and will continue to do! If you do not have the MP3’s, you should go out and buy this album as soon as it comes out (and don’t file-share it for goodness sake)!!!
UPDATE: Listening another time around, with all of this in mind…my theories are on shaky ground. One intriguing song, “Get Real Get Right” contains some cheesy electronic sounds and vocal effects worthy of a segment on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and yet this is one of the more overtly “Christian” songs on the album with talk of seared consciences and getting right with the Lord. Maybe this plays into theory #1? There are some other kitschy moments on the album where a vocoder is used (similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or Bon Iver’s “Woods”) along with some other robotic vocal effects (similar to a lot of 1980’s songs). Is he just having fun, or is there something in this particular choice?
ANOTHER UPDATE: There are no lyrics in the CD sleeve. Which reinforces the idea that words are “futile devices.” Now what the hell do all those paintings by the “Prophet Royal Robertson” mean in the context of this album!?