It’s not every artist that dares to write a song longer than seven minutes, and you often have to look towards experimental music, instrumental ambience, or progressive rock to find most good examples. Especially since repetition seems unnecessary with the “back” button so easily accessible on any computer or iPod, songs that extend past the seven minute mark often feel lost and unfocused when they aren’t full of prog-rock wankery or the electronic equivalent of elevator music.
But then there’s Sufjan Stevens, a very homely artist that really made his name with the now preposterous 50 States Project, of which he managed to complete two – the under-appreciated Michigan and the larger-than-life Illinois. Those albums were defined by their beautiful song suites, often merging traditional folk stylings with the lush orchestrations that have become a staple of big-name indie acts since Arcade Fire’s Funeral.
It’s been five years since Stevens’ last album topped almost every year-end list, and things have changed quite a bit. The 50 States Project has been abandoned, and with it Sufjan’s status as an indie-folk singer-songwriter seems to have vanished as well. His newest album, The Age of Adz, is punctuated by electronic glitchiness. There is not a banjo to be found, and in their place we find synths and plenty of reverb. The album isn’t fully electronic, however. Stevens brilliant move is that he’s taken electronic music and blended it seamlessly with what sounds like a Wagnerian orchestra. The Age of Adz is simply huge.
There’s probably nothing more striking about the album on the surface than its epic closing number, “Impossible Soul.” The song length stretches nearly to 26 minutes, and yet somehow it stands as a highlight of not just The Age of Adz, but maybe even Sufjan’s career – hell, maybe even 2010 in music. The track is something like five songs in one, with through-composed transitions that blend everything together for a very purposeful flow of songs that is not only reminiscent of the Abbey Road suite, but even rivals it in quality. And just to nail the coffin shut on the music of Old Sufjan, there’s the most divisive thing Sufjan could have ever done to challenge his fans: using autotune. The giddy and danceable orchestral sing-along that follows is probably the most life-affirming and uplifting track I’ve heard in years. In a year marked by some absolutely fantastic music, Sufjan Stevens has somehow manage to top everybody, even with the odds stacked against him.