Early on in his new album, Sufjan Stevens provides clear thematic content and excellent musical delivery. The Ascension promises to approach religion from a new angle, and offers a new sound for the artist. Unfortunately, it fails to maintain its premise, stumbling and falling apart as the album slowly progresses with a stultifying pace.
The record starts off with the strong “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse.” Drums pulsate and Stevens’ voice sails through his engaging lyrics. The ending of the song blips and groans, a mechanical and frightening build that leads into the dreamily wistful “Run Away With Me.”
“Video Game” is another excellent beginning entry, even if it does seem to start a little slow. The lyrics here are clear and provide ample opportunity for dissection, as Stevens sings about faith and individuality. The chorus is fun, bouncing around over a brightly ambient synth. This enjoyable tone, however, is not meant to last.
While the next track, “Lamentations,” is still excellent — scratching loops underline Stevens’ always fantastic voice — it is here that the cracks in the album really begin to show. The annoying sounds that abound on this track make a comeback on “Ursa Major,” and there, they are unforgivable.
“Die Happy” acts as an intermission for the album: It is mostly slow and thematically comprehensible. This, too, is a fine song that reveals the album’s problems. While other tracks have their repetitive moments, “Die Happy” is the first song that really wades into tedium. It builds, progressively, to more of the grating sounds introduced on “Lamentations.” This should be the last time Stevens roots himself in such simultaneously boring and irritating sounds — instead, he dives into them for the rest of the album, and rarely provides much else.
“Ativan” is where the earlier flaws of boredom really come through. Occasional drum breaks and swells attempt to liven up the music, but it is, at its base level, boring. It is so dreary and plain, in fact, that even lines about self-defecation do nothing to capture the listener’s attention.
Some songs are OK. The ideas behind “Landslide” are interesting. Echoing drums and guitars create an ethereal tone, appropriate for the mechanical spiritualism that serves as the album’s driving force. But, like so many of the tracks on The Ascension, it is simply too long. The compelling ideas in “Landslide” could have been easily and effectively condensed into a much more digestible song — one that doesn’t drone and linger.
Because of their lengths, many tracks feel like unnecessary additions to an already overinflated album. The boredom of such songs is nothing, however, compared to the needlessly harsh noises of other tracks in the album’s second half.
The crunching drums of “Gilgamesh” are unpleasant, but worse still, they are distracting. It is hard to focus on Stevens’ voice — which, at this point in the album, has faded into indifferent monotony. Surely there is a purpose to this unpleasantness. Stevens has excelled in the past with a variety of different, sometimes abrasive, sounds. And yet, on The Ascension, that purpose is never made clear. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the human relationship with a higher power — often frustrating and defeating without explanation or cause. Still, such a metaphor doesn’t change the album’s clunky sounds, which overwhelm its divine and pleasant moments.
These later songs are not simply boring or grating in a vacuum — indeed, standing alone, songs such as “Sugar” could be worthwhile listens. On a different album, “Death Star” would work. But one of the core problems with The Ascension is a failure to adapt or expand upon the sound established early in the album. Instead, Stevens establishes a starting position and never moves from it.
He does try. “The Ascension” is a lovely song, a piano tapping over a gentle drum beat with beautiful vocals singing wonderful and introspective lyrics. But in the context of the album as a whole, the song is unearned. It wants to be the final chapter in a long and emotional journey — one that does not exist.