There’s a false sense of security emanating from “Futile Devices,” the first track off of Sufjan Stevens new album, The Age of Adz (pronounced odds). The hushed vocals, piano, and plucked guitar notes recall the qualities that made him a godhead figure in the indie community. But those expecting to revel in the singer-songwriter’s folksy orchestrations for next 75 minutes will be taken aback upon hearing the first minute of “Too Much.” Gone are the days of Stevens as a banjo carrying bard, as his Americana infused sound has been traded in for synths, break beats, and even autotune. While it will undoubtedly anger those who want more of the artist they discovered in “Little Miss Sunshine,” The Age of Adz is an excellent case study of a man utilizing all of his strengths in order to keep his creativity intact, while pushing his sonic boundaries in the process.

In an interview with Paste Magazine last year, Stevens admitted that his one time plans of doing an album for each of the fifty states, out of which spawned his two most beloved albums Greetings From Michigan and Illinois, were not going to come to pass. His 2007 BQE project, an orchestral, audio-visual ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, had made him question the importance of the album as a medium, and as a result he experienced a sort of creative roadblock in writing the follow up to Illinois. The Age of Adz, then, can be seen as a response to his feelings of stagnation that the flourishes and preciousness of his last few albums afforded him, instead opting to return to the aesthetic he was exploring on one of his early albums, Enjoy Your Rabbit. Fortunately, none of the substance was lost in the transition, as several of the songs presented here are career highlights for Stevens.

The album was partly inspired by Royal Robertson, an artist with paranoid schizophrenia who believed that he had divine visions of the future. Some of the songs on The Age of Adz share these sentiments. The title track immediately recalls a dystopian disaster scene, as swirling electronics, horns, strings, and choral chants open the song in an ominous fashion. Stevens sings urgently, “This is the age of adz, eternal living,” conjuring up the sort of religious imagery that may have driven Robertson, while “Get Real, Get Right” urges the listener to “get right with the Lord.”

However, these same songs can be interpreted as Stevens turning his gaze inwards, as some of these lyrics are extremely personal. For example, on “Vesuvius” Stevens finds a parallel to his own life in the volcano that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii. He then contemplates suicide on “I Want To Be Well,” boldly proclaiming “I’m not fucking around.” All of this coming from the same man who is most well known for driving to Chicago in a van, with his friends. While the tone and point of view may have changed from his wistful narratives, Stevens attention to detail and nuance is still intact, as his words are rife with the imagery and symbolism that he has become revered for.

After multiple listens, the initial shock of hearing Stevens delicate voice amidst the messy wash of electronic sounds and mechanized beats disseminates, and you are left with an album that is filled with intricate, deep arrangements and some exceptional performances on Stevens’ part. Over a soft piano, an auto-harp and eerie choir harmonies, he delivers one of the best vocal turns of his career on “Now That I’m Older.” He sings with a sense of remorse and sadness that is nothing short of breathtaking, and the song creates a mood that is guaranteed to leave a lump in the listener’s chest.

The sprawling, and testing, 25 minute closer “Impossible Soul” contains so many instrumental layers and musical movements that one can only marvel at how Stevens is able to keep your attention for almost a full half hour, not to mention the thought process that went into writing it. It is proof that no matter the mode of expression, be it with an acoustic guitar or a work station, Stevens is a supremely gifted artist that can make artistic risk look carefully calculated and intentional. The Age of Adz may not please everyone, but then again, not all great works of art do.

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