An acid trip to ascension
Returning for his eighth full-length studio album, Sufjan Stevens resumes his musical career with Ascension, bringing back his melancholic and transcendent aesthetics. With a two-decade-long history in the music industry, Stevens first began in the folk-rock outfit Marzuki out of Holland, Michigan whilst still in college, and wrote his debut solo album A Sun Came, that would demonstrate his skill as a multi-instrumentalist and would then relocate to New York. Whilst in NY, Stevens recorded his second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit which would be where he would begin to incorporate electronica elements into his music.
Further down the line, Stevens would be the awardee of several music awards such as the 2005 Pantheon prize, the Album of the Year award by the 2006 PLUG Independent Music Awards and even a Grammy Nomination for “Best Song Written for Visual Media” for the hit theme track for the 2017 Call Me by Your Name motion picture, “Mystery of Love.”
Diving into The Ascension, the LP begins with the distorted ascendant track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” guided by Stevens’ melancholic vocals and an obscure transitional synth line that builds as the song leads people further into the next track. Hitting a lower somber note is “Run Away With Me,” which enthuses something angelic through echoing vocals and brings an uplifting tone with upbeat drum machines complimentary to “Video Game.” With a sly head beating chorus and synth melody, “Video Game” is a steady dance tune to groove to in the corner whilst head bopping to the chiming lines of “I don’t want to play your video game.”
With zany distorted backdrop noises and upbeat percussions, “Lamentations” is truly obscure and rhythmic similar to something that of Neon Indian’s “Should Have Taken Acid With You” or MGMT’s “Kids.” This song collages the elements of wonky and ascendant in one package that may just give listeners a trip if they are not careful. Returning to something more somber and compassionate is “Tell Me You Love Me,” in which Stevens utilizes a more slow and draggy vocal style on top of soft, cheery synths which contrasts to the upbeat percussions, almost like that of an electrified nursery rhyme that explodes into a full breakout melody.
Perhaps speaking on behalf of all millennials, “Die Happy” presents an overall theme of wanting to… that’s right, die happy, with low reverberating synths that build up to a frantic EDM melody for people to go into a full rave if one so wished to. Following a similar style to “Die Happy,” “Ativan” incorporates once more distorted vocal noises in the background with a fast-paced drumline making this track a gloomy, energetic EDM melody.
Though Stevens doesn’t identify his music anywhere near-contemporary Christian music, he seems to explore more into the world of religion with “Ursa Major” that includes far more zany mix and match noises supporting his calming vocals. Resembling something closer to the chillwave and funk rhythms of Toro y Moi is “Landslide,” which gives a vaporwave vibe to lay back to with a hookah on the sofa to its riveting acoustic plucks.
Like that of a grooving acid trip, “Gilgamesh” follows up with distorted and screeching synths alongside more of Stevens’ relaxed and transcendent vocals that are strangely saddening and uplifting. Fashionably as a synth breakdown, “Death Star” follows up with its hard-hitting percussions and chiming angelic synths that transitions smoothly into “Goodbye To All That,” featuring a similar production style.
Following up with the early released single “Sugar,” the track offers a steady upbeat drumline with easy-to-follow, repetitive and compassionate lyrics before handing it over to the reverent melancholic self-titled track “The Ascension” that is soft, somber and uplifting. Concluding the album is the symphonic track “America,” that demonstrates a wide variety of Stevens’ multi-instrumental talent packed together in a 12-minute long concerto outro to bring finish this album.
It’s by far clear and noticeable Stevens tapped into a pool of inspiration for The Ascension, giving an avant-garde approach like that of other artists in the genre such as Jorge Elbrecht, and makes more use of synthesizer than in previous albums, but still strikes it home. Whether looking for something uplifting or just something to vibe to, The Ascension offers a wide selection of trippy, ascendant melodies to choose from.