Mental Illness Meets Pop Genius

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

Genre: Pop/Electronic

Release Date:  October 12, 2010

Sufjan Stevens, the man who brought us full-length albums chronicling the people, places, and events of Michigan and Illinois, is back with his latest—and perhaps, most ambitious—endeavor yet, the sprawling, The Age of Adz.  On this album, Stevens takes the focus off of the exploration of external entities and turns it inward towards the workings of the psyche.

Just whose psyche is unclear.

The Age of Adz is a reference to deceased Louisiana artist Royal Robertson (his artwork appears on the album cover and in the liner notes), a paranoid schizophrenic and self-proclaimed prophet whose wife left him for another man after 19 years of marriage.  The album may well be the biographical account of Robertson’s delusional and lovelorn life or Robertson’s story could simply serve as the vehicle through which Stevens tells his own demented and deranged tale of loves’ unraveling.  This is not entirely clear, though Stevens does periodically refer to himself in the third person (if only, perhaps, to lend the album a more personal touch).

This album has all the characteristics of the man it makes reference to.  From hallucinogenic call and response, dramatic and frightening shifts in emotion, and delusional ramblings, the contents of this album—like Robertson—fit all the necessary criteria for the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (with traces of manic depression to boot).

In addition to his battles with mental illness, the album’s narrator must also come to terms with his internal feelings towards the dissolution of his relationship (which appears to be self-inflicted).  Over the course of the album, the narrator runs the gamut of human emotion—from suicidally depressed to exuberantly optimistic and everything in between—while continuously cycling through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.

Despite all the pain, confusion, selfishness, anger, hysteria, and paranoia exhibited by the narrator, there is also a child-like innocence underlying all of the dark thoughts and emotions that are bubbling at the surface.  During calmer moments, the narrator wistfully reflects on happier times with his ex-lover, expressing the deep love he still carries for her and the genuine remorse he feels for the pain he’s caused.  It’s at moments like these that we get a glimpse of just how vulnerable, fragile, and human the narrator truly is.  In an instant, we excuse his past missteps and callousness and use his mental illness as license for his repugnant behavior.

The actual music itself has all the typical idiosyncrasies expected of a proper  Sufjan Stevens recording.  Electronic blips and bleeps are seamlessly meshed with traditional instruments and—like the narrator’s mood—are constantly shifting in tone and sound.  Stevens does a masterful job of using these instruments to indicate the mood of any given moment.  During moments of anger, Stevens is prone to use a mixture of ominous sounding flutes, strings, drums, and electronic blips to further convey the narrator’s inner turmoil.  Conversely, during times of reflection, Stevens is just as likely to stick to gentle acoustic guitar picking to emphasize the tranquility of the moment.

Perhaps the greatest instrument on display is Stevens’ vocal chords.  Far from having a traditionally beautiful singing voice, what Stevens lacks in natural singing ability he more than makes up for with his ability to emote a wide range of feelings.  Stevens uses his voice, like his other instruments, to effortlessly convey how the narrator feels from moment to moment.

All in all, The Age of Adz introduces us to a tremendously afflicted Stevens/Robertson wrestling with his inner demons.  It’s a messy affair (both psychologically as well as musically) to be sure, but what did you expect?  This is a Sufjan Stevens undertaking after all, isn’t it?  No one except Stevens could have concocted this beautiful mess.  So, instead of recommending he get a psych eval, we should all be so thankful he didn’t.

8 / 10

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