How a move to the country changed musical approach
SUFJAN STEVENS’S CONCEPT-ALBUM PROFUNDITY HAS HISTORICALLY BEEN INSPIRED BY MORE LIGHTHEARTED TOPICS, like the planets, the Chinese zodiac or the 50 states (save for 2015’s autobiographical Carrie & Lowell). But the self-described “artist of particulars, specificities and the minutia” has pivoted for The Ascension, his eighth studio album, to examine his part of the whole, sprung up from a sense of personal dread about society’s political and social regression.
“I think at some point I realized that my problems were no longer personal, or my personal problems were no longer at the forefront of my mind and my experience. And I started to see [that] my problems are universal,” he says.
“It’s really not about me. I am just the messenger.” Tapping into that spirit, The Ascension was born. Its lead single, a 12-minute epic titled “America,” is a deeply expository song about the tumultuous state of his mother country. It feels like the thesis statement for the album’s overarching condemnatory tone. Through its critical lens, the record points to the ways in which we are failing each other. It also suggests we may be able to “ascend” from the darkness, to rebuild and reshape our existence through love and compassion — instead of looking to “institutions and governments and politicians and celebrities to stand for something.”
Stevens explains, “The Ascension and the transformation from the physical to the spiritual, for me, is [the] process of sublimation of consciousness. And I kind of wanted to use that process to disassociate and ascend away from myself and the world, the corruption and crisis and chaos around me to make better sense of it. To get out of my head and get out of my mind and get out of my fear.
“I started to ask myself, ‘What if our problems aren’t natural or actual, but metaphysical?’ Or what if, at least, the solution to the problems were better understood on a spiritual level? I think that the songs [on The Ascension] are asking bigger questions, like, ‘Why are we here? What is it all for?’”
Lyrically pared down, The Ascension assumes the role of a pop album, albeit marked by Stevens’s capacity for the experimental. He hides pockets of insight beneath the album’s glassy patterns, club-ready electronic sensibilities and profane colloquialisms.
In conversation from the comfort of his new home in the Catskill Mountains, he describes the record as “highbrow mixed with lowbrow.” In the rural setting, Stevens has embraced a new way of living in order to engage this and other new ways of writing, as well as to facilitate meditation on his role within larger systems.
While taking some things seriously and others less so, he makes time to joke around, addressing the absurdity of the internet and the need for love at the end of the world.
The spacious northeast Appalachian property where he lives now offers the luxury of arable land. As a result, he has become serious about gardening and expresses an interest in raising chickens and goats. Now that he’s removed himself from the urban centre of Brooklyn, he’s also thinking of getting a dog. A
Siberian Husky, maybe.
“My life now is a lot more rural and more like a farmer’s life. I have an ATV and a tractor and a trailer to hook up to it. And I have a chainsaw,” he laughs.
“This morning, the first thing I did was, I had to fertilize my tomatoes and spray the cabbages,” he says of his new lifestyle. “Now that there’s starting to be a yield, I have to keep up with it [and] go out every day and make sure I’m not missing any of the cucumbers. If something has blight, I have to deal with it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun as well. It’s given me a lot of hope, too. It’s helping me get through the day,” he says.
Besides sounding like a prepper’s paradise, his change of scenery has offered clarity in a time of ceaselessly occurring global crises. “If I feel anxiety about the state of the world, I can just turn off the computer, turn off the internet, and start working on music and just focus on nature,” he says. His music is changing shape along with his surroundings. “I think I’m going back to writing folk songs again,” he reveals.
“I had a studio in Dumbo, in Brooklyn, for about 10 years. And about four years ago — because of gentrification and all that — I got kicked out and I couldn’t find a new space in the city. So I just put everything in storage. I just kinda kept really simple things, like keyboards and drum machines, and I didn’t really have any acoustic instruments for a few years. But once I moved up here last year, I got to bring all my guitars and banjos and ukuleles. So I’m kind of excited to get to know them again.”
He estimates it will be another five years or so before he releases another album, but The Ascension, in its mammoth proportions, should easily bridge the gap. Its veins and venules are innumerous and immeasurably complex. It could very well take all those years to dissect it sufficiently.
An anthology filled to the brim with postulations about the issues within “society and politics, identity” and within Stevens too (despite his best efforts to remove himself from the equation), it can be an emotional undertaking to listen to. With the world still in disarray, Stevens admits, “I can only really speak for the mess that I’ve made for myself.”
He says, “There’s a lot of work we all need to do to ourselves. Because we’re all complicit in this problem. We’re all participating in these systems and structures that aren’t sustainable and are unhealthy.”
In that sentiment, one thing is clear: you have to put your mask on first.
“It’s like in a plane crash: you have to follow procedure. And that means taking care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. ‘We’re all in this together,’ they keep saying, but then at the same time, we’re so isolated, you know? It’s a paradox. I do believe that if you can’t help yourself then you can’t help others. You can’t love yourself if you can’t love others.”
Content to Point the Way,