After five long years under the radar, Sufjan Stevens returns with his latest full-length album: The Ascension. Drawing from the intimate lyricism of 2015’s Carrie and Lowell and the experimental electronica of the 2010s The Age of Adz, the singer-songwriter combines these elements and delivers an ambitious electro-pop project featuring 15 tracks. Armed with prophet synthesizers and a drum machine, Stevens steers away from acoustic instrumentation. Instead, he conjures up layered, electronic soundscapes packed with soaring synths and glitchy beats.
The dizzying sounds in The Ascension mirror Steven’s loss of faith in America. In a year dripping with social and political turmoil, a deadly pandemic, and a worrying climate emergency, his deep-seated anxieties are not unfounded. Naturally, this makes The Ascension an emotionally-heavy album to get through. Nevertheless, it’s an important listen that reflects a turbulent age in human history—of an America on the verge of collapse.
In the opening track, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” Steven’s anxiety—which stems from America’s rocky socio-political climate—is difficult to ignore. Haunting vocal manipulations are layered over a slew of choppy drum beats and frightening beeping and whirring sounds. As the song progresses, the instrumentation intensifies as various synth sounds spiral out of control. Steven’s fragile voice declares, “show me the face of the radical dream / there’s no time for innocence.” He signals how we cannot brush America’s issues under the rug. To combat problems like systematic racism and a rapidly warming planet, radical change is needed from the bottom up.
America’s instability mirrors Steven’s own deteriorating mental state. His deep anxieties are present in “Atvian,” which is a track named after the oral medicine used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Filled with paranoia-ridden drum beats, the song has a glitchy quality. As he struggles to cope with the terrors of the world, Steven states “I feel just like an embryo / I take it out before you put it back / put my head between my knees.” These heartbreaking lyrics demonstrate a childlike way to cope with the world’s issues. He rolls into the fetal position to shield himself from the horror.
However, not all is lost. Glimpses of hope linger throughout The Ascension—even in the darkest moments. The intro of “Tell Me You Love Me” features twinkly synths. While these calming sounds ring out, Steven’s soft vocals begin to waver over a steady drumbeat. He sings, “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything / Tell me you love me anyway.” Even though his faith in America is crumbling away, he still holds onto the possibility that he is loved despite his inner turmoil. Slowly but surely, these lush electronic sounds lead to a euphoric climax, where Stevens’ plea for love is answered and he is told: “I’m gonna love you / I’m gonna love you every day.” All in all, these hopeful moments are a welcome breather in the middle of an emotionally exhausting, but culturally relevant album.