“The Ascension” — the Detroit native’s 10th studio album — delivered an ambitious 15-song tracklist spanning 81 minutes Sept. 25. This newest release proceeds Stevens’ “Aporia” album released earlier this year.
From the album’s opening tracks, listeners will find Stevens in a different headspace, professing pop cliches on tracks like “Run Away With Me,” “Tell Me You Love Me” and especially the ambient “Die Happy” — which solely states, “I wanna die happy.” What these songs lack in lyrical depth is countered with rollercoaster electronic opuses that begin in modest fashion and erupt into a whirlwind of compressed drums and whiny synthesizers.
While the soundtrack is unified under an ambient, free-floating atmosphere of synthesizers, Stevens leaves too little on the chopping block, turning the project into an unnecessarily drawn-out experience at points.
The album’s lead single “Video Game” finds Stevens wishing to break society’s algorithm of success — fame, wealth and status — in a robotic, melancholy manner.
“I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus / I don’t wanna live inside of that flame / In a way I wanna be my own believer / I don’t wanna play your video game.”
Featuring dreamy keyboards and a shiny atmosphere, this radio-catered anthem epitomizes Stevens’ vision to deliver a zero-gravity feeling to his audience, ambiently floating among the anxiety and fear that Stevens carries through his performances.
The second leg of the album begins the stark mood swing on “Ativan” as Stevens writes from a trauma-induced place of weakness.
Stevens admits, “I shit the pants and wet the bed / It takes some time to throw the demons off.”
Stevens illustrates an image of himself in a fetal position consumed by childhood fears and worries that he’s led a meaningless life. This confession ceases when the track explodes into dance pop inspired drums and an assortment of noises that sound like they came from a spaceship’s control board.
“Ursa Major” follows this moment of vulnerability in contrasting fashion by finding comfort in the omnipresence of God — just how the Ursa Major constellation covers the night sky. The track is riddled with quirky sampled vocals and a rhythmic assemblage of drums to accompany some of Stevens’ most introspective lines on the album.
“For the most of all my life / I feel as if I were a stranger / And all the consequences / From the throes of our persuasion.”
“Landslide” is filled with dreamy bells and spacey synthesizers that, once again, feel gravitating. The track features one of Stevens’ most raw vocal performances throughout his discography when the track intensifies with echoing drums.
“Gilgamesh” and “Death Star” land consecutively as both tracks discuss morality and death over staticy kickdrums, orchestratic strings and epic choir hymns. On “Death Star,” Stevens continues a trend of repetitive one-liners and dynamic beat switches, this time illustrating an arrogant resistance against death.
“Death star into space / Trash talk, violate it / Vandalize what you create / It’s your own damn head on that plate.”
The track closes with grimey drums that pleasantly transition into “Goodbye to All That,” which adds squeaky piano melodies that playfully juxtapose the heavy drumline continually persisting. Stevens returns to a winning formula with Christmas bells and an uplifting choir accompaniment to deliver a moment of awe sonically. The track acts as a focal point as this intergalactic exploration — staring on “Ativan” — is honed back to Stevens himself as he comes to terms with his fear of morality.
“I’m driving to wherever you are / Now that all of my dreams have been confiscated / Circa 1975 / Now that it’s too late to have died a young man.”
Once this journey concludes, the energy deescalates into the intimate “Sugar” track. Once more, Stevens fills the emptiness of the instrumental with repetitive pop lyrics of yearning for his lover. The track serves as a low-point for the project as the track blatantly attempts to replicate the success of “Video Game” with low-effort lyricism and an uninspired sound.
On the album’s title track, Stevens elevates his songwriting to a career-high with one of his most heart wrenching, spiritual performances. The track is a culmination of the album’s themes as Stevens wrestles with anxiety, regret of living wrongly, death and his devotion to God. Along with a subtle piano rhythm, breathy back vocals and prolific lyrics, Stevens transports us into a realm of self-evaluation.
“So what should be said of a life that leaves its mess? / For once your life was sold it could never be possessed / You were selfishly as a continent, you were finally at your best / For you favored for yourself when selfishness was blessed.”
Stevens closes the ambient, introspective experience with a 12-minute song “America,” one of the two songs featured on Stevens’ “America EP” earlier this year. The song poetically creates a relationship between God, America and Stevens to express his distaste with the American system, his discernment with faith and his belief in God’s abandonment of humans.
While the final five-minutes feature several atmospheric, directionless arrangements that drag out the album’s play time, the first half of the track emulates a fiery compassion for God and a severe fear of his legacy as an artist.
Sufjan Stevens’ “The Ascension” is streaming now on Apple Music and Spotify.