Adz and Ends
When Sufjan Stevens began work on The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”), it was clear he would be exploring some new territory. Having made public comments expressing a certain degree of displeasure or weariness with the course of his recent work, audiences were prepped for a change of pace.
Adz takes its name and inspiration from the work of Royal Robertson, a 20th century artist who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and whose visions of the end of days fueled his often misogynistic work. In drawing from Robertson’s work, Stevens’ own takes new direction. Broadly speaking, there are fewer occasions for storytelling – a particular strength of Stevens – as the narrative focuses less on specific interpersonal relations and events. Stevens instead seems to chronicle one man’s relationship with an unnamed other person or persons, alternating male and female figures, and letting the listener fill in the gaps. Is he singing from Robertson’s perspective? Could the female be Robertson’s ex-wife, a dominating figure in the artist’s life and work? A curious listener could go as far with this course of investigation as he or she pleases; the work holds up to inquiry.
For those less interested in the narrative details, there is the music. Stevens does not entirely abandon the “baroque pop” sound for which he is known. Rather, he embraces electronic elements – looped beats, blips, bleeps, and synths – as the songs’ structural bones and adds organic instruments as flesh to the songs.
Opening with “Futile Devices,” a brief ode to the uselessness of words, the sound of round, dulcet guitar tones leads to the electronic rumbles of “Too Much.” Sparse beats develop and grow with the addition of layered vocals, horns, strings, fluttering flutes into a circus-like cacophony. The album continues in this manner, vacillating between moments of simplistic calm (“Now That I’m Older,” “Vesuvius”) and an overwhelming, almost taxing symphony. At times, these more frenetic sections are reminiscent of an operetta as Stevens piles on the drama alongside complex instrumentation and an omniscient choir.
The work culminates in the 25-minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” which pulls together all themes woven throughout the album. The finest points feature a call-and-response between Stevens and his choir as he appears to make peace with the unnamed figures from previous songs.