words by Kristin Robinson
Sung in refrain during the minutes-long outro of the album’s penultimate track, Sufjan Stevens’ long awaited follow-up to the record Carrie & Lowell (2016), The Ascension, shows the artist/producer struggling for answers. A fitting question for a year marked by unrest, inequality, and illness, Stevens faces the world he lives in headlong but aimlessly searches for the answer, wandering from discussions of esoteric philosophy to romance and back again.
The Ascension acts as his hero’s journey through the unanswerable “what nows” of life, a 15-track epic spanning 80 minutes total. Nearly double the length of Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell (43 minutes), The Ascension offers about as much revelation as the shorter record, but this does not necessarily make The Ascension a misstep. One of his greatest strengths as a writer across his discography, Stevens feels remarkably human on The Ascension. Though aesthetically and thematically the record is a pretty major divergence from the intimate Carrie and Lowell, his latest record shares the same humility. Here, he is just a regular, well-intentioned man grasping for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of it. In this record, Stevens is the archetypal hero with an Achilles heel, and his heel is the inability to make up his mind.
But this downfall could easily be the record’s saving grace. Without his faultiness as a narrator, Stevens’ The Ascension might make him out to be a false prophet. Instead, Stevens allows all of his thoughts run freely – no matter how flawed or mundane. There are moments, however, when his lyrics become so nonsensical, it is undeniably subtractive. In the song “Ativan,” for example, he says, “caught up in the baby’s breath / I shit my pants and wet the bed,” and less than a minute later he calls out, “fill me with the love of Jesus.” In these moments, Sufjan’s non sequitur begins to sound like psychotic babble.
Though these choices (particularly the unforgettable “shit my pants” line) are truly distracting, there are many times that these lines can be shrugged off as part of his eccentric charm. Mixed metaphors, non sequitur, and allusions are nothing new and are often used to great success for the songwriter as with “Visions of Gideon” from Call Me By Your Name. To understand Stevens’ message in “Visions of Gideon,” the listener must be willing to close their eyes and suspend their imagination. His lyrics are often meant to be more impressionistic than literal.
Wherever the lyrics of these songs falter, they are held up by Stevens’ impressive, sturdy production. Made with just a small assortment of tools, mostly synthesizers and drum machines and the occasional electric guitar at his home, the production on The Ascension demonstrates the same brightness and urgency as the message in his lyrics. With many of the tracks on this record clocking in at over five minutes, Stevens patiently builds up his instrumentals by adding one element at a time. In “Lamentations” the album’s fourth track, its intro shows this build, beginning with an industrial drum loop and a shaker. One of his most percussive records to date, Stevens layers drum loops and samples togethers to create elaborate polyrhythms and an atmosphere of chaos.
Layering loops became a valuable tool for Stevens on The Ascension to create a cyclical feel across the record. This feeling is also seen in his lyrics which tend to move in circles around questions of “what now” and through album art that Stevens designed himself. In “Ativan,” he even references this by name asking, “is it all full circle? / is it all part of the plan?”
Like his previous records, The Ascension uses philosophy and religion (particularly Christianity) as common references. From his early album Seven Swans, an allusion to the Book of Revelation,and the breakout single “To Be Alone with You,” Christianity has been one of his greatest sources of comfort and confusion throughout the artist’s career. In his latest record, Stevens seems to question his faith more than he has shown before, and these admissions of doubt, like his call to God in “Ursa Major,” are some his most impactful moments on The Ascension.
By the near-end of the record, Stevens concludes the search for meaning with the titular track, “The Ascension.” Much more ambient and ethereal than the preceding tracks, “The Ascension” feels like a sigh of relief and the closest thing to a resolution for the songwriter. Singing “and now it strikes me far too late again,” Stevens begins to take responsibility for the faults of his past, namely “living for [himself]” and “asking too much of everyone.” Accompanied by the first (and only) acoustic piano used in the record, he plays an ascending (no pun intended) chord progression as he sings the chorus, “I should answer for myself as the Ascension falls upon me.” It feels triumphant despite its sobriety, and it feels like a realistic end to a record that hoped to find answers to impossible questions.
Ending with the refrain “what now,” his best conclusion is still open-ended. Though he has found some self-awareness, the act of simply being “aware” is still hollow without applying action. The world still remains restless and cruel despite personal epiphany, and Stevens seems to understand this.
More of an epilogue than the album’s final track, “The Ascension” is followed by “America,” a twelve minute, thirty second epic which moves the album’s focus outward to American society. According to Stevens it was created as “a protest song against the sickness of American culture.” In the style of The Doors, with their famously long final tracks, Stevens’ “America” feels massive in both length and scale. Though its message is powerful, and its production matches it with equal gusto, it feels unnecessary at the end of this record or could even be removed completely. Released first as a single, right before Independence Day in the United States, it could have easily been left as a one-off statement. Its presence after the self-reflective, quieter “The Ascension” shows Stevens perhaps reneging on the personal responsibility he claimed in the penultimate track by shifting blame to outside forces as his final statement.
But despite its pitfalls, The Ascension is an appropriate, self-conscious record for one of the most difficult years in recent history. Tasked with following up the unanimously beloved Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension was practically set up for disappointment, but it managed to distinguish itself and found a fitting message for its moment.
The Ascension is out now, via Asthmatic Kitty