The album is titled The Ascension, but, I’ve got to be honest, Sufjan Stevens’ latest masterwork has me feeling the lowest I’ve felt about this country since the start of quarantine.
I’ll cut the man some slack, though, and acknowledge that his eighth solo studio album — the first he’s made during the presidency of Donald Trump — has reached my ears during a heavy week. We’re mourning the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wondering about the future of that court, panicking over what January 2021 will bring, and raging over a grand jury’s refusal to secure justice for Breonna Taylor, for her stolen life. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues its deadly spread across the country, and the flu seems poised to do the same. In a year of immense awfulness, this week feels like it’s working overtime to disappoint.
Thank God, then, that Stevens has exceeded my hopes and expectations. The Ascension is cutting in its anger and grief of the disaster and immorality this country has led itself into, but the album is not an entirely somber journey. Sonically, this is one of Stevens’ most exciting projects, sounding like a FKA Twigs track at one moment, a techno club at another, and progressing to other moods throughout. Like Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the album goes all over the place, but unlike Blonde, it spends more time looking beyond its creator. Stevens’ pinnacle of critical acclaim is his previous solo studio album, the deeply autobiographical Carrie & Lowell, but Carrie & Lowell, Part Two, The Ascension is not. The unabashedly Christian singer-songwriter forgoes intense self-reflection to stand as witness to the terrors America has caused and/or are surviving.
On the track “Tell Me You Love Me,” Stevens sings: “As the world turns, making such a mess / what’s the point of it when everything’s dispossessed?” Like his country Stevens sounds out of control in some of his new songs, pushing his vocals every so often in ways I haven’t heard from him before. His usual whispers and mutters rise to a higher pitch, to wails of unmet desire and biblical anguish. Instead of guitar, he works largely with a drum machine and synthesizers, amplifying the loneliness some of the songs evoke into a feeling of praying for deliverance in noiseless darkness.
The Ascension ’s penultimate track is its title track, and what a song: One of those non-guitar arrangements I spoke of, Stevens returns to his characteristic breathiness and sings frankly of dying and facing his sins: “Let the record show what I couldn’t quite confess / For by living for myself I was living for unrest … 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.”
This song, out of the 15, is why this album has me so deep “in my feels,” as the kids say. It’s a raw hymn of honesty, of self-contempt in an American age of utmost chaos and greed — not just on the highest political levels but as (newly) mundane as not wearing a mask in a grocery store. “And now it strikes me far too late again / ,” Stevens sings, “that I should answer for myself as the Ascension falls upon me.”
The 12-minutes-30-seconds-long song “America” is the actual closer of this searing, groovy, saddening album by one of the best singer-songwriters in the industry, and it ends with a plea: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” But “The Ascension” is so monumental in its indictment and sonic power that its ending sticks in my mind just as strongly, if not more so: “What now? (What now?) … What now?” History may rhyme with this melody, but in many ways we are living a new song.
However, like the best of our musical political commentators, Stevens has reminded us, via The Ascension, that we are not helpless to these notes. The bard is us, and we must decide how long this record will continue to spin.