Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2010)

A creator of elaborate but unusual concept albums -- he once intended to do a themed album for each of the fifty states, but only got as far as Michigan and Illinois -- Sufjan Stevens never fails to be interesting.  As anybody who knows my mother-in-law can tell you, though, "interesting" is not always a compliment.  Illinois, named the best album of the 00s by Paste Magazine, came across as the soundtrack of a cheesy musical that somehow managed to have some genuinely memorable moments; it's impossible to hear the choruses of "Chicago" or "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" without singing along.  But if Illinois was a play, then Stevens' new album The Age of Adz is a big budget sci-fi musical extravaganza -- directed, unfortunately, by Ed Wood.

The inspiration for The Age of Adz was Stevens' recovery from a fairly serious illness last year.  The basic theme of the album is to live life to the fullest, which is fine and good but could have been expressed more simply than it is here.  The best track on the album is actually the prologue "Futile Devices," a short, romantic acoustic ballad.  After that, Stevens' over-the-top grandiosity runs amuck.  Illinois had its share of orchestration and choral singing, too, but there was also a rustic pleasance to that album that is replaced here by a heavy, heavy, heavy dose of electronics.  You get the sense while listening to this album that Stevens mapped out every electronic beep, whirl, and gadgety effect carefully and precisely, and yet the overall effect is ultimately cluttered and intrusive.  There are some good melodies at points, like on "Get Real Get Right" and "Bad Communication," but they're almost completely buried.

And the lyrics, when given particular emphasis, come across as trite.  At the end of the penultimate song "I Want to Be Well," Stevens declares "I'm not fucking around!" repeatedly, to the point that whatever effect the use of strong language was supposed to have gets beaten into a silly submission.  If the repetition in that song is irritating, however, it becomes colossally ridiculous in the twenty-five minute closing song "Impossible Soul."  The first twelve minutes are tedious enough, but most of the second half of this song is dominated by the phrase "Boy, we could do much more together, it's not so impossible!" being repeated endlessly, relentlessly, interminably.

Heroically ambitious yet horrifically overwrought, The Age of Adz suffers from too much self-indulgence and not nearly enough real depth or musicality. I can't flunk it entirely, because Sufjan Stevens boldly goes places with his music where few recording artists would even dream of going. But like Casey at the Bat, he takes a mighty swing and comes up empty.

Overall grade: D

reviewed by Scott

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