Things are bad. Everyone I know seems more than a little deranged, driven slowly out of their minds by the absolute and continuing failure of the government—not from a lack of resources but because the people in charge simply do not care. It’s become harder and harder to bear the traditional inaction of liberal politics: If one political party doesn’t care about your well-being and the other refuses to fight on your behalf, what can you do?
On The Ascension, the latest album from the mercurial folk singer Sufjan Stevens, the question is formulated a little differently. “Is it all for nothing/Is it all part of the plan?” he asks in a voice that’s both plaintive and unmistakably acquiescent. And then the answer: “Tranquilize me and revise me / Ativan.” It’s one thing to know exactly how terrible things are, and then it’s a totally separate thing to have to carry on every day as though nothing at all is wrong. I still answer e-mails punctually, and have meetings to talk about things that aren’t related to the prevailing crises of our time. It is more than a little maddening. Stevens has diverted that thwarted energy into something productive, an album that’s as gorgeous as it is resigned. More than anything, The Ascension is of its time. It’s an expertly crafted exploration of frustration by a master of his art. And by God, it’s beautiful. I haven’t been able to listen to anything else.
The other day, Stevens gave a fairly revealing interview to Spencer Kornhaber over at The Atlantic, in which he summarized the mood and mode of The Ascension: “There’s a lot of criticism on those [early] records; it’s all just hidden behind a facade of joyfulness,” Stevens told Kornhaber. “But I’m inherently a pessimist…. For the first time ever, on The Ascension, I’m being honest about what I feel about the world.”
That previous work, of course, is the genre-spanning stuff that made Stevens’s name. There’s the dark whimsy of Illinois, the pop adjacent experimentalism of The Age of Adz, and the emotional devastation of Carrie and Lowell—and those are just a few of his better-known efforts. Stevens is an auteur, and his work is best when he’s trying something new. His discography is a little like the sedimentary layers of the ground beneath us: years and years of life and feeling compressed into an album’s worth of time.
The Ascension isn’t quite like anything Stevens has made before. It blends his great pop instincts with a pervasive, gentle pessimism, and the mood this dissonance creates feels weirdly soothing—like giving one’s brain a bath. Lines like “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything / Tell me you love me anyway,” “I wanna die happy,” and “Is it all for nothing / Is it all part of the plan?” smack you in the face, delivered as they are in Stevens’s high, pure voice. The beats are intricate, the instruments are digital, and the pop culture references are, generally speaking, on point.
That said, it feels hard to define just what kind of pop sandbox Stevens is playing in, even though it feels fully formed. Electro-folk? Vaporwave synthpop? Digitized maximalism? I’m not even sure it matters, though it’s clear that Stevens has been listening to and learning from his contemporaries—I hear shades of Jamie XX and Will Wiesenfeld, among other fully digested influences.
The Ascension’s lyrics, on the other hand, are esoteric. Even if Stevens’s cynicism is obvious, songs like “Gilgamesh” and “Run Away With Me” break up the flow with a healthy dose of yearning. (Lyrics like “And I say, love / Come run away with me / Sweet falling remedy” make that pretty clear.) I’m not exactly sure how he’s done it, but Stevens has made a record that feels like right now: The Ascension is by turns depressing, fantastical, horny, and also a little hopeful. As life has moved inside and has subsequently been stripped down to its essentials, what else is left to us? In other words: big mood.
The Ascension also finds Stevens playing with pop culture tropes. “Death Star” uses the Star Wars boondoggle to make a point about how a certain class of people are killing everyone else on the planet. “Death star into space / What you call the human race / Expedite the judgment day / It’s your own damn head on that plate,” he sings at one point. The nihilism is somehow relatable, even if the lyrics here feel a bit buried in the mix.
“Goodbye to All That,” on the other hand, spins Joan Didion’s seminal (and original!) “Leaving New York” essay into “A Joyful Tune About Leaving New York.” And it gives us one of the best lines on the entire album, too: “Now that it’s too late to have died a young man / Well I’m just glad that I’m still alive / For what hasn’t killed me will make me stronger,” which I think is as good a motto as any to keep on being alive.
But “Goodbye to All That” also exemplifies my least favorite thing about The Ascension—its lyrics can be vague and allusive. Which can be meaningful, depending on your mood—“Tell me what I already know / Nothing is left of me, all of this is vertigo / Turn around and show me your shadow”—or come off as a little too slick. But even these temperamental shortcomings are all in the service of conjuring an ethereal mood, which Sufjan does with panache. At its best, the songs here make me think of that sensation you have right when you wake up, when the dream world hasn’t yet dissolved, like sugar, into intangibility.
The last track on The Ascension is “America,” a twelve-and-a-half-minute song about the nation. In it, Stevens addresses an unknown listener, and it’s unclear whether he’s speaking to a lover or the people of the United States made flesh. The chorus lends itself to more ambiguity: “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” Stevens sings. But it’s charged. And let’s be honest: It feels almost too current, even though the song was written six years ago. According to Kornhaber’s interview, Stevens said the song is about his crisis of faith regarding his identity as an American. “It’s overtly a political protest song, specifically about America,” he told his interviewer.
Who isn’t in the middle of a similar crisis? The Ascension eloquently voices the familiar feelings of confusion, anxiety, and outright terror. But even while doing so, Stevens still manages to soothe: he’s the bard of this apocalypse.