Category Archives: Album Reviews

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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Unclassifiable Beauty Transmitted From A Distant Planet

Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma

Genre: Electronic/Experimental

Release Date: May 4, 2010

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s Flying Lotus!

“A flying what?” you ask—and with good reason.  While the vast majority of people wouldn’t recognize Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison aka FlyLo, for short) if they hit him with their car, he’s a name worth getting familiar with.

What’s equally difficult to identify, is what genre FlyLo’s latest album, Cosmogramma, should fall into.  Is it jazz, hip-hop, electronic, avant-garde experimentalism, a fusion of all of these, or something else entirely?

I’ve heard it referred to as “blip-hop” and that might be the closest suitable designation I can give.  The only easily identifiable aspect of this music is that it is strangely unique and different from most everything else on the music landscape these days.

Perhaps what best encapsulates the essence of this album is its otherworldliness.  From start to finish, FlyLo takes the listener on a journey through the cosmos—a place that at first seems chaotic, overwhelming, and full of disarray but quickly becomes organized, harmonious, and understandable.  If the Na’vi of Pandora had iPods, this is what they’d be listening to.

A song like “Recoiled” sounds like the mating calls of a female alien species over the tribal pitter-patter of drums and quivering leaves.  It’s a highly sensualized sound that is followed perfectly by the mischievous “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph,” which bounces along at a frenetic pace and conjures wild images of hordes of male suitors fervently dancing in vain to appeal to the teasing nymph and demonstrate their reproductive fitness.

On the track, “…And The World Laughs With You,” Thom Yorke (yes, he of Radiohead fame) distantly croons, “I need to know you’re out there/ Need to know you’re listening,” to which we hear the gurgled and indecipherable transmissions of an alien race responding.

Throughout the album, FlyLo has crafted a lush soundscape filled with horns, strings, drums, and electronic blips and hiccups.  Even more impressive, he’s created a universe that removes the listener from the monotony of the world they know and thrusts them into a galaxy filled with alien beings and celestial bodies where everything is fresh and exhilarating.

If you’ve ever looked up into the vastness of space and wondered, ‘Is there anyone else out there?’ then FlyLo is here to silence your questioning and provide a definitive, ‘yes.’

The spaceship is boarding.  I suggest you come along for the trip.

8.5 / 10

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Step Into Your Past…

Mark Mcguire: Living With Yourself

Genre: Alternative/Experimental

Release Date: October 12, 2010

This album is not so much music as it is a mood.  It’s going up into your parent’s attic and finding a bunch of old family photographs and forgotten videotapes.  It’s eating platefuls of turkey at Thanksgiving and then reveling in the bliss of being surrounded by loved ones.  It’s family vacations, long drives home from college, and holidays spent together.

This album is nostalgic, cathartic, and blissful.  It’s the mundane parts of life that we take for granted and then wistfully wish we could have back.

This album is your past, your youth, your regrets, and your happiest moments all encapsulated in a haunting 42 minutes.  It’s the story of your life—and why wouldn’t you want to listen to that?  

8 / 10

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