Crit­ics

Suf­jan Stevens’s lat­est rep­re­sents both an evo­lu­tion and a re­turn.

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - POP / CRAIG JENK­INS

pop by Craig Jenk­ins Suf­jan Stevens’s ac­ces­si­ble “protest” al­bum movies by Alison Will­more An un­usu­ally drab turn from Sofia Cop­pola tv by Matt Zoller Seitz The Good Lord Bird is a minis­eries about the 19th cen­tury with a firm grasp on to­day

once upon a time, win­some, hope­ful Michi­gan­der Suf­jan Stevens be­came one of the finest song­writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion by delv­ing into the sweep­ing to­pog­ra­phy and some­times pe­cu­liar lo­cal cul­ture of Mid­dle Amer­ica, trac­ing the fall of cities like Flint and Detroit from in­dus­trial-era promi­nence on 2003’s Michi­gan and re­count­ing un­for­get­table youth­ful ex­pe­ri­ences in De­catur and the Mis­sis­sippi Pal­isades on 2005’s Illi­nois. Cou­pled with his book­ish at­ten­tion to his­tory, Stevens’s fey vo­cals and twee ar­range­ments sug­gested an ac­com­plished mul­ti­me­dia class pro­ject, a whiz kid wrap­ping his head around the full­ness of Amer­ica. Stevens’s “50 States Pro­ject” ended abruptly, though; such was the rest­less­ness of his in­ter­ests. When he wasn’t mak­ing con­cept al­bums about U.S. states, Stevens made del­i­cate banjo-and-gui­tar songs stuffed with re­li­gious al­le­gory, dab­bled in elec­tron­ics on a col­lec­tion of com­po­si­tions in­spired by the Chi­nese zo­diac, and dished out a seem­ingly end­less trove of orig­i­nal Christ­mas car­ols and cov­ers. He helped run Asth­matic Kitty, the in­die la­bel he co­founded; pro­duced for friends; started su­per­groups; ran a lively Tum­blr cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from faith to pop cul­ture and pol­i­tics; and cre­ated a film, al­bum, and live show about the de­cay­ing ex­press­way join­ing

Down­town Brook­lyn to As­to­ria, Queens. His method is ever chang­ing, but his drive al­ways seems to be sim­ply to share and ap­pre­ci­ate beauty.

In most of th­ese en­deav­ors, we have ex­pe­ri­enced Stevens as an over­ar­ch­ing cu­rat­ing eye through which the vast Amer­ica land­scape is pon­dered along­side peo­ple’s in­di­vid­ual jour­neys across it. His cat­a­logue is a needle­point ta­pes­try, a se­ries of vi­brant strokes up close that re­veals an in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness as you step back and what look like ran­dom shapes and col­ors be­come iden­ti­fi­able pat­terns. Still, the man him­self can feel far away and un­know­able. Fans pore over lyrics and dis­patches for clues about the life of the writer, ob­sess­ing over am­bi­gu­i­ties and try­ing to parse au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tives from clever bits of sto­ry­telling. A Face­book page ti­tled “Is this Suf­jan Stevens song gay or just about God?” stud­ies the vis­ceral phys­i­cal­ity of Stevens’s songs about faith in boor­ish terms; th­ese days, cul­ti­vat­ing a sense of mys­tery is seen as a chal­lenge to the en­ter­pris­ing in­ter­net cit­i­zen, though it used to be a con­certed act of cre­at­ing space be­tween artist and au­di­ence.

Ei­ther be­cause of this or in spite of it, Stevens’s art has be­come less ab­stract. 2015’s Car­rie & Low­ell pro­cessed grief from the loss of his mother to can­cer by ex­am­in­ing child­hood mem­o­ries and adult emo­tional dis­tress. Al­though 2017’s Plan­e­tar­ium—a col­lab­o­ra­tive al­bum with com­poser Nico Muhly, drum­mer James McAlis­ter, and the Na­tional’s Bryce Dess­ner—deals in as­tron­omy and an­cient Ro­man myths, its pit­ting of love against war­fare lands on the main theme of the year it was re­leased.

At the top of the Fourth of July week­end, Stevens re­leased the 12-and-a-half-minute epic “Amer­ica,” braid­ing dis­parate threads from ear­lier works into its post­card art­work (see Michi­gan and Illi­nois), sen­sual faith­ful­ness (see Seven Swans), wind­ing song lengths, and flair for synths-and-drum pro­gram­ming (see The Age of Adz and En­joy Your Rab­bit). “Amer­ica” is a protest an­them dis­guised as a con­ver­sa­tion with God. The re­frain—“Don’t do to me what you did to Amer­ica”—hit hard on a week­end when some Amer­i­cans pon­dered sit­ting In­de­pen­dence Day out in a year that has been a flash point for long-sim­mer­ing racial in­jus­tices, while oth­ers watched the pres­i­dent break so­cial-dis­tanc­ing pro­to­cols dur­ing a cam­paign rally at Mount Rush­more, where he told sup­port­ers that protests around the coun­try against po­lice bru­tal­ity and Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments were “de­signed to over­throw the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.” The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal mo­ment is unique in the speed at which schisms have be­come chasms, but the na­tion’s tri­umphs have al­ways been un­der­cut by a grisly ca­pac­ity for vi­o­lence, one that is also present in Stevens’s States al­bums, on which you’re as likely to hear a song about a beau­ti­ful mon­u­ment or stretch of land as one about a world-fa­mous se­rial killer or an in­ter­lude memo­ri­al­iz­ing the pain of Mary Todd Lin­coln, widow of fa­mous Abe, who was fi­nally in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in her grief over the loss of most of her im­me­di­ate fam­ily. “Amer­ica” fore­grounds a mes­sage that has al­ways lurked in the mar­gins: The place may look nice, but it was paid for in blood.

Like Car­rie & Low­ell, which re­turned Stevens to his folk roots while pre­sent­ing a sub­tle shift in his ap­proach to song­writ­ing, this fall’s The As­cen­sion is both a slight re­turn and a bit of an evo­lu­tion. Shim­mer­ing synth tones nod to the glitchier mo­ments on Adz and to the fo­cus on tasty tex­tures that Stevens and his step­fa­ther, Low­ell Brams, pur­sued on last year’s col­lab­o­ra­tive in­stru­men­tal al­bum Apo­ria, a move any­one who liked last year’s Pride sin­gle “Love Your­self ” or the remixes on the 2017 mix­tape The Great­est Gift could see com­ing from deep. What’s dif­fer­ent now is the ar­range­ments, which are much starker and more to the point than the artist’s ear­lier for­ays into elec­tronic mu­sic, and the lyrics, which cut to the heart of his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the Amer­i­can Dream while shak­ing off his taste for sub­tle, ref­er­en­tial mes­sag­ing. Suf­jan calls The As­cen­sion his protest al­bum, but it’s also the clos­est thing to pop mu­sic he’s ever made. You won’t spend years frack­ing for sub­merged mean­ing in “Die Happy,” “Video Game,” or “Run Away With Me,” al­though on “Gil­gamesh” he’s back to his old tricks, nam­ing one of his horni­est songs ever af­ter the Me­sopotamian myth­i­cal hero whom feistier schol­ars be­lieve to have been in love with his male best friend, Enkidu. In songs like this, Stevens weaponizes the boy­ish­ness of his voice, giv­ing an el­e­ment of shock to the more lurid lines; it’s a trick he picked up on the pre­vi­ous al­bum, where his whis­per soft­ened the har­row­ing de­tails of death and grief.

The As­cen­sion wears sim­plic­ity and di­rect­ness well un­til it doesn’t. “Die Happy” re­peats its main line—“I wanna die happy”—enough times for the sur­prise to wear off, drop­ping a mas­sive beat in the mid­dle that makes the whole thing feel like wry gal­lows hu­mor. Else­where, rep­e­ti­tion can be cloy­ing. “Death Star” is pleas­ant but not pro­found; “Tell Me You Love Me” drags on a lit­tle too long be­fore an in­tense, lifeaf­firm­ing coda. The highs are strato­spheric if you have the pa­tience to wait for the pay­off. “Land­slide” takes off like space travel at the cho­rus; “Ati­van” takes four min­utes to reach a eu­phoric dance break. The As­cen­sion is sort of like spend­ing a night out in a club to blow off steam af­ter a bad day; it’s death and gloom un­til the right beat hits and your fo­cus shifts to find­ing some­one to pro­vide com­fort through the night. The con­trast sug­gests com­pan­ion­ship is the so­lu­tion to fears about a fray­ing repub­lic and a planet on a low boil, but the doom­say­ing gothic tunes on the front end of the al­bum are more in­trigu­ing than most of the songs that land af­ter “Gil­gamesh”—save for the ti­tle track, where the faith jour­ney that has long an­i­mated Stevens’s art and phi­los­o­phy comes un­der the same ni­hilis­tic gaze the al­bum oth­er­wise re­serves for pol­i­tics.

“The As­cen­sion” is a mo­ment not un­like the chill­ing An­dre 3000 verse on Frank Ocean’s Blonde al­bum (in which the Atlanta rap veteran sur­veys the cur­rent state of the cul­ture and won­ders aloud why he ever both­ered be­ing a per­fec­tion­ist)—a mo­ment we’re all hav­ing while watch­ing vir­tu­ous peo­ple suf­fer and die while oth­ers party as if noth­ing is hap­pen­ing; when it re­ally looks like it might be less emo­tion­ally ex­pen­sive to just live for your­self, civic du­ties be damned: “And now it fright­ens me, the thought against my chest/To think I was ask­ing for a rea­son/Ex­plain­ing why ev­ery­thing’s a to­tal mess.” Stevens twists the knife fur­ther as he goes: “I thought I could change the world around me/I thought I could change the world for best/I thought I was called in con­vo­ca­tion / I thought I was sanc­ti­fied and blessed.” He finds no res­o­lu­tion, in the end, for th­ese con­cerns, and the song floats away on voices singing, “What now?” But the an­swer to the ques­tion of this Job-like test of faith is that good­ness isn’t trans­ac­tional, a thing you stock­pile in ex­pec­ta­tion of even­tual com­pen­sa­tion, the mis­take Chris­tian the­olo­gians make when they sell the faith ex­clu­sively as a ticket out of hell. You do it in hopes of mak­ing things eas­ier for those who come be­hind you, in hopes of be­ing re­mem­bered for what you built while you were here. Death catches us all even­tu­ally, but if you play your cards right, you touch enough peo­ple so your mem­ory out­lasts your phys­i­cal form. If you don’t be­lieve in rap­tures and res­ur­rec­tions, that’s a kind of im­mor­tal­ity.

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