In the vein of his “Love Yourself” release last year, Sufjan Stevens graced audiences over the past two weeks with two new singles: “America” and the track’s B-side, “My Rajneesh.” The two singles, both more than 10 minutes, are set to be pressed onto a 12-inch vinyl, available July 31. The tracks come ahead of the much-anticipated record, The Ascension, due late September. The Ascension is set to be one of two albums released by Stevens this year, but will be the artist’s first solo project since 2017’s The Greatest Gift. If the dynamic singles are anything to go by, the album will likely be a crescendo in the indie mainstay’s fruitful career.
Stevens’ fans are no stranger to the artist’s flair for the experimental — See: The Age of Adz. Both singles are no exception. Whereas “America” descends into the same sonic chaos as much of The Age of Adz’s tracklist, “My Rajneesh” is imbued with both the same tenderness as 2003’s Michigan and Adz’s unpredictability. Tonally, the songs retroactively paint this year’s primarily instrumental Aporia as a sort of prologue for the album to come.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that to solely dwell in the annals of Stevens’ discography as points of comparison for these tracks would be a disservice. Both “America” and “My Rajneesh” feel very much like the culmination of Stevens’ niche artistry. The songs feel self-evident, containing the multitudes of their predecessors and the natural progression of Stevens’ style.
“America” stands as a poignant and timely release — somehow capturing the bloody melancholy of the life of the nation. The song is grounded in the same spiritual ambiguity that has often spawned the question: “Is Stevens’ music queer or religious?” The song ambles through swampy ambience, Stevens’ harmonic background vocals simultaneously desperate and anguishing. The track’s haunting refrain, “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” catalogues a dynamic and lamenting portrait of the deterioration of America by way of religious symbolism. The refrain, nestled among lines such as, “The sign of the cross awaiting disaster/ The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia” and “I have loved you like a dream/ I have kissed your lips like a Judas in heat” so carefully articulate the impossible simultaneity of patriotism and national atrocities that defines the American landscape.
In contrast, “My Rajneesh,” not among the songs on The Ascensions’ tracklist, tackles a smaller slice of Americana, exploring a cult out of the 70s that launched one of the largest bioterrorist attacks in American history. The song is a lilting epithet of desperation similar to that of “America,” but tackles these themes through gospellike crescendos and a steady dissolution of the melody over its 10-minute run. It devolves into an evocative darkness, concluding with a resonant synth pad that feels, ironically, like ascension. The two songs work together as two sides of the same coin, and with Stevens’ notoriety for tackling such dark themes, they are evidence to the diversity of his skillset to do so. Their specificity and cohesion proving that whatever The Ascension has in store will be met with bated breath.