Review: Seeking Guidance with Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Ascension’

Sufjan Stevens © 2020
Sufjan Stevens © 2020
Inquisitive, chaotic, and immersive, ‘The Ascension’ is Sufjan Stevens reflecting society while forming personal connections at the same time.
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Listen: ‘The Ascension’ – Sufjan Stevens

As 2020 comes to a close, there are likely two things at the forefront of our approach to the world: faith and disgust. Faith in the passing of time that things will naturally get better or faith in the people who are contributing positively to society. Then disgust towards ourselves, to political/ social systems, and to the year 2020 as a whole. During these periods of heightened emotions, it’s easy to get lost within ourselves, to shut out the word around us and scream. 

The Ascension - Sufjan Stevens
The Ascension – Sufjan Stevens

The Ascension, Sufjan Steven’s eighth studio album, is the kind of music designed to be listened to with headphones in and the volume turned up loud.

Over an hour long, it’s a journey through bitterness, connections, and uncertainty, soundtracked by a mishmash of forceful electro, soft atmospherics, and church-like tones, which adds an air of whimsicality to it all.

In “America,” the lead single and also the closing track of the album, Stevens writes a protest song that’s fuelled by sad peacefulness and instrumentals that encourage the listener to drift with their thoughts. Contrasting religious imagery with disappointment in American culture, it ressembles a destruction of the American dream and a crisis in faith and as the outro drags on, first dramatic and then fading into something sparse and a little eery, a moment of reflection is intended. This questioning and seeking answers whether from inside or from someone else is a common theme throughout The Ascension. In the opener, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” Stevens pleads ‘Move like the waters I cannot drink/ I have lost my patience/ Make me an offer I cannot refuse/ Move through to me/ Show me the face of all of my dreams/ Was it all for nothing?/ Make me an offer I cannot refuse’ while in “Lamentations” he muses ‘I am the future, define the future/ I was only thinking of human kindness’ before inquiring ‘Is this the way you make me ask for something more?/ Is this the reason why you walk back to the door?’

I have loved you, I have grieved
I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe
I have loved you, I received
I have traded my life
For a picture of the scenery
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to America
I give it all up in laughter
The sign of the cross awaiting disaster
The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia
The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia
– “America,” Sufjan Stevens 
Sufjan Stevens © 2020
Sufjan Stevens © 2020

Sonically, The Ascension is constructed purely from electronics, Stevens recording it with a drum machine and synthesizer. In ways it can be compared to his 2010 album The Age of Adz except The Ascension is more intense, the jumble of beats and bleeps initially taking centre stage and perhaps in some cases representing the technological aspect of the society he’s questioning. There are tracks however that are sweet and dreamy, tugging at the senses in a Carrie & Lowell kind of way. “Tell Me You Love Me” begins with the pitter pattering of piano (taken from “Climb That Mountain” off the instrumental album Aporia) before Stevens whispers familiar phrases such as ‘My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything’ and ‘Right now, I could use a change of heart.’ The pace subtly builds throughout until reaching its climax towards the end,  the words ‘I’m gonna love you (I’m gonna love you)/ I’m gonna love you every day’ repeated in a cry amidst an explosion of twinkling synths and ethereal cloudiness.

Goodbye To All That” continues succinctly from “Death Star” as though one continuous song but, while “Death Star” is more tense, ‘’Goodbye To All That’’ is like a release of purity, optimistic but also distant like the optimism is nothing but a fantasy. The choir-like woahs in the background add a greater sense of desperation, taking inner emotions and giving them some support.

Similarly the title track is the most stripped back, the technical layering replaced with a tender melody slowly wondering over an echoey bed. The lyrics are dark and, while they refer to Stevens’ past naivety at the way he saw the world (a trope throughout the album) and religious imagery is recurring, lines could easily be given their own personal interpretation- encompassing moments when you’re feeling lost and alone.

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
And now it frightens me, the dreams that I possess
To think I was acting like a believer, when I was just angry and depressed
And to everything, there is no meaning, a season of pain and hopelessness
I shouldn’t have looked for revelation, I should have resigned myself to this
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
– “The Ascension,” Sufjan Stevens

Other songs, the singles “Video Game” and “Sugar,” have a subtle playfulness. The former is about not seeking validation in a social media dominated world and the latter about the craving for goodness and purity, the sound consistent but the lyrics with a crafted simplicity.

In contrast, “Ativan” encompasses dealing with anxiety, sonically chaotic and gloomy, while the lyrics are descriptive and matter-of-fact (the words ‘Caught up in the baby’s breath/ I shit my pants and wet the bed‘ maybe catching listeners off guard but sung in a completely straight-faced way). “Die Happy” is compiled of just four words- ‘I wanna die happy’- repeated over and over again. At a bit over five minutes long, the instrumentation represents the mood of the album, beginning like a lullaby, dreamily, then the electronics rising more aggressively before ending with the dubstep-style crashing and squeaking.

The Ascension is essentially about questioning the role of guidance, in society and in Steven’s life, but the album is also like a form of guidance. For times when you are unsure of your position in the world, when stress, anger, and helplessness have taken over, music can be a way of swallowing you up and putting you at the centre of everything. Sufjan Steven’s whispery vocals are a comfort and the songs alternate between the noisy, sweet, and plain. In these cases, the duration of the album causes the listener to go through various forms of emotions so by the end of the closing track they’ve maybe screamed inside, had short periods of indifference, and also released thick fresh tears. The Ascension isn’t revolutionary (although does mark another creative approach in Sufjan Steven’s career) but it does captures the present, whether as a whole or in one’s personal life, pretty well.


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The Ascension - Sufjan Stevens

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? © 2020

The Ascension

an album by Sufjan Stevens

Dissolution of Blind Faith, Then an Awakening in Sufjan Stevens' ''America'' & ''My Rajneesh''

:: REVIEW ::

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