Since his debut album a decade ago, Sufjan Stevens has defined his career by trying to become everything to no one in particular. Very few artists in the modern age have been able to do whatever they want to do creatively, rarely if ever making the same album twice and seemingly abandoning one audience for another with each new release. Stevens has been a Folk singer, an Electronic dabbler, a bold experimentalist, a poet, a surrealist, a romantic and a spiritualist, and through it all he somehow has found a fanbase that has generally ridden all the rides in the amusement park in his head right along with him.
Unfortunately, all this unfettered creativity apparently took its toll, as Stevens revealed last year that The BQE, his 2007 orchestral passion play and 2009 album, had drained him of the ability to backtrack his way to the song structures and methodology that first attracted listeners to his work.
A lot of Stevens’ fans must have swallowed hard at this revelation but they needn’t have worried.
Whatever was blocking his creative path, he found his way around it and released the teaser EP All Delighted People in August, following it up in October with the full-length The Age of Adz, the title a reference to the disturbing art of schizophrenic painter Royal Robertson. With The Age of Adz, Stevens does the nearly impossible: He indeed finds his way back to his song structure and he does so while incorporating a good deal of the intricate and fascinating little bits and bobs that he’s utilized over the years.
As far as songs are concerned, there are many tracks on The Age of Adz that, in different arrangements, would fit perfectly on Michigan or Illinois, the two (and now admittedly only) entries in his abandoned 50 states album project. As far as arrangements are concerned, Stevens becomes an even bolder sonic theorist, returning to a song architecture and then theorizing within that context, sometimes sounding like a fascinating convergence of Donovan (“Futile Devices”), Brian Eno (“Now That I’m Older”), Philip Glass (“All For Myself”), Polyphonic Spree (“Vesuvius”), eels (“I Want to Be Well”), Beck (“Get Real Get Right”) and Kanye West (check out the overly AutoTuned vocals on parts of the 25-minute epic closer “Impossible Soul”).The beauty and brilliance of Stevens’ accomplishment on The Age of Adz is his ability to find the overlapping areas of tradition and experimentation and create diverse material that coexists in that rarified atmosphere.