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.

What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?

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”?

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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!?


19 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist in The Age of Adz”

  1. I really enjoyed this review. I have listened to a few of the songs streaming on the interwebz and I think I’ve decided that this will be the Sufjan album that I get into.
    I have a tendency to resist good music based solely because “everyone” digs it(for example: David Bazaan/Pedro The Lion) and I’ve kind of done this with Sufjan as well. So far though, this album intrigues me musically as well as lyrically. I resonate with artists who struggle in their faith. This may be the album that moves me to enjoy Sufjan more often.

    I think good art acts as a foil and/or a mirror to sharpen our sense of ourselves. I wonder Greg, how much this review reveals about yourself.(I see myself in both the album and your review!!)

    Thank God for good art!! And for humans who appreciate it!!

  2. Thanks for reading, Grant. I’m glad you are opening yourself to Sufjan, but I also understand the tendency to wave along the “band”wagon and keep walking to your own beat.

    You’re right that many times we see in art what we are looking for & yet hopefully this doesn’t mean I’m gay. (Though Elijah almost makes me gay sometimes.)

    Let me know what you think when you’ve listened to the album!

  3. Spot on with your analysis. I was just telling Josh the other day that it felt a whole lot more personal than anything we’ve heard from him yet, and I like that you’ve gone so far as to uncover a kind of trajectory to the song cycle. Not sure which of your explanations seems the most plausible, though I subconsciously heard unrequited love, I think. I would say it sounds merely like a very well-written and inspiringly fabricated first-person narrative except that Sufjan makes it clear: he is not fuckin’ around.

  4. Greg,

    Thanks so much for this analysis. Your insights are amazing, as always. I myself have been greatly intrigued by the record. As you well know, my favourite kind of Sufjan is probably an experimental one. I believe that this record is Sufjan’s inauguration into ever-increasingly experimental productions. As we’ve heard before, Sufjan is sick of the music industry. I think he probably despises Illinois as a concept at this point. Very much in line with what you seem to be putting forth, I believe that this whole record is Sufjan putting forth questions that he is struggling with—questions about faith, love, life, the inexpressible—and will continue to explore.

    For Sufanatics like you and me the whole picture actually makes a lot of sense. I am not saying that his next record (if he ever makes another) will be more experimental, but whatever he does in between Adz and whatever will be next. I believe you rightly observe that Sufjan is becoming more personal. This personal journey will be manifested in many ways. He may write a novel, or essays, or he may merely keep this to himself in a private journal that we’ll never see.

    I’m excited for this record. I’m excited to grow alongside this record. I’m excited for whatever Sufjan chooses to do next. And for your information, my placing of Sufjan at number six was merely me goading him on in spirit to make this record. I actually had a note in my first draft of the ‘Top 20 Bands’ that was calling out Sufjan for keeping his fans waiting for so long, tempting him to release a record. Then he goes and gifts us with ADP and Adz. Let me just say that Mr Stevens no longer occupies a place on my list outside of the top five…

    Also, I wanted to point out that the artist Sufjan uses for the cover and title of the record, Royal Robertson, is a very interesting case. I know that his work is very misogynistic and I listened to the record with this in mind. Roberson, who was a paranoid schizophrenic, was left by his wife and oftentimes employs biblical themes in his work. I wonder how these factors worked themselves out in Sufjan’s writing of this record.

    1. Hah, yes, you’re probably right.

      Please know that I have the deepest affection and admiration for Sufjan, so my “theories” on the first listen are not intended to disparage him, but rather to engage his work.

      Thanks for putting your voice into the interpretive mix!

  5. This is an excellent review. This album is every bit as good as it is troubling. And I appreciated your analysis and it has definitely influenced my own interpretation. However, while you have certainly made the point that Sufjan has been autobiographical in his past albums at a few points, I don’t think you do justice to the autobiographical tendencies in ALL of Sufjan’s work. There isn’t a character, not a single obscure historical anecdote, that isn’t carefully selected to reveal something about Sufjan himself. Consider Sufjan’s passionate and careful description of John Wayne Gacy. At the end of the song, Sufjan says to “look beneath the floor-boards” for the secrets I have hid.” The sudden adoption of first person, and the bizarre confession, I think, represent a man tortured with his own guilt. Does this make him some sort of outlier or a homosexual? No. St. Augustine was much, much, much more self-critical than I will ever be; but he was a much, much, much better person than I am. I think Sufjan is, in all of his music, in a dialogue with those types of writers. In this album, Age of Adz, I think Sufjan–much as he does with interesting characters in other albums again like John Wayne Gacy in Illinois–is exploring a person whom he finds interesting and in whom he sees something about himself. The difference? Well, I think in Age of Adz Sufjan is tired of letting go of the characters he so briefly describes in his quest to explore a larger theme. I think he wanted to do a thorough job of examining Royal Robertson’s life in the way I described above (examining it in a way that leads to a greater self-understanding). I think he did an excellent job with this task. I think the Paranoia, the Delusions of Grandeur, the Pain and Isolation, etc all come to life not merely in the lyrics but in the music. Discordant, Disquieting but then… Wow. I love that he did not include the lyrics: “When I die, When I die, I rot…” “When I die, When I die, I RISE!” Wondrously complex album. I love it.

    1. Marty,
      Thanks for your comment and your insightful analysis! Knowing nothing about Royal Robertson when I wrote the initial post and now seeing that his paintings make up the liner notes of the album, I am now wondering if he may indeed be a key figure to investigate, rather than assuming Adz is autobiographical.

      I still have some intuitive sense that Sufjan has something he is dealing with in his own life which is manifesting itself in this album, but I also realize that all of my initial theories may be completely off base.

      Also, good catch on the self-reference on John Wayne Gacy…that is a moment where he breaks the fourth wall a bit and it is startling!

      Blessings brother!

  6. Greg, I’ve done the same kind of delving-too-deeply into the music on my site and touched on some of the same things you have.

    I’ve concluded that Sufjan is a slightly insane, literally. His connection to Royal is quite deep, IMHO.

    1. Feel free to post a link to your thoughts.
      I would be sad if Sufjan was indeed mentally unbalanced, but one does have to consider that as a possibility. Many of our greatest artists, thinkers, prophets were considered mad…

      In fact, I just read a graphic novel called “Logicomix” about Bertrand Russell which attempted to link momentous insights into mathematics and logic with the madness/passion of the thinker.

  7. I honestly think that this album is, among other things, as explicit as Sufjan Stevens could possibly be about his sexuality.

    The lyrics below are from “I want it all”:

    “We set out once with folded shirts, with hairy chest and well rehearsed
    I want it all, I want it all for myself
    I’ll set it right between your eyes
    Your shoulder blades, your running knife
    I want it all, I want it all for myself”.

    I don’t think there is any ambiguity about that. And if you need more evidence, there’s more in other tracks…

    1. Paolo,

      I wouldn’t necessarily see this (or any other parts of the record) as explicitly expressing Sufjan’s sexuality, especially when he apologised to the audience during the Age of Adz support tour for ‘writing an album about a relationship with a girl’. I wouldn’t see a problem with Sufjan being a homosexual or a bisexual, but I think the lyrics may be more complex than that…

  8. It is definitely an album about a relationship with a girl – that is evident. But the last track, “Impossible soul”, explains quite clearly what the problem was.
    What other element in Sufjan’s nature can be incompatible with his faith? Why does he have to choose between being himself and being a good Christian?

    1. I don’t think that ‘Impossible Soul’ is about his sexuality. Sufjan’s denomination sees no problem with homosexuality, so I don’t think he necessarily believes that being a homosexual could stop one from being a good Christian. Also, there are many things about our ‘nature’ (I’d rather say our ‘inclinations’) that are incompatible with his faith. As me makes clear in the ‘Pleasure Principle’ movement of ‘Impossible Soul’, ‘I’m nothing but a selfish man…girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.’ I believe that this selfishness and some degree of hedonism are the things that may be considered incompatible with his faith. I don’t see homosexuality entering into the picture here.

      1. Sorry, I know I’m about a year late in replying to this…

        If one of the themes at work here is indeed homosexuality, then I’m less inclined to believe that it’s about homosexuality being at odds with Christian faith, than about homosexuality causing him to be at odds with himself, because it is not straightforward. The way I interpret Sufjan’s relationship with the girl (and of course I could be completely wrong) is that she’s someone he cares about very much, but he does not “love” her in a romantic sense because he is (more?) attracted to men. Perhaps he tried to be attracted to her, and maybe he was on some level, but he realized that the relationship was not something he could ultimately sustain. And this troubled him:

        “Stupid man in the window, I couldn’t be at rest
        All my delight, all that mattered, I couldn’t be at rest
        From what I liked, from what I gathered, I couldn’t be at rest.”

        He tried to love her, and wasn’t capable of doing it. She, meanwhile, fell in love with him, and now he recognizes that she is suffering the consequences of his actions.

        Perhaps that is why words are futile devices: he loves her, but it is not a love that is easily defined, not a love that makes sense with our society’s understanding of it. Maybe it’s that he himself does not understand it.

  9. Thanks for this review, it’s really great and informative. I planned to buy the album soon, but I’m very disappointed the album doesn’t have lyrics. One of the reasons I like to buy CDs is because those extra things. English is not my first language, so it’s sometimes difficult to me to understand the vocals.

    If lyrics are not important, then make an instrumental album. I think I’m gonna stick to my mp3 copy.

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