Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Age of Adz and such

If you've been following my Youtube account (and if you haven't, why not? D: you may have noticed that I recently uploaded a bunch of videos of me playing Tetris with music playing. You might think, well, what's up with this? And I'm here to tell you. It was sort of a "perfect storm" sort of thing that lead to it:

1) I am completely addicted to Tetris
This one is "sad but true". Man, I love me some Tetris. It's like, I wake up in the morning, I have an hour or so to kill before work, I'm caught up on Internet stuff, I've eaten breakfast, all I want to do is listen to the songs that were stuck in my head from the night before. What am I gonna do, just sit there and listen to it? Nah man, I might as well play some Tetris. So I do. Same deal when I get home from work - I just want to dick around for a bit, I'm gonna play some Tetris. Simple as that. I like it because it challenges me, I'm improving at it, etc, etc, all sorts of nice things. It is pretty much a waste of time, though. I've gotten to a point where I start to rank down if I'm playing anything less than my best, which sort of sucks, because most of the time I am sort of off my game and as I result I just keep hovering back and forth between a few ranks, not making any progress. Anyways, I figure, if I'm gonna just be wasting my time with nothing to show for it, I might as well get something to show for it. This fits in with my new motto, which I think a lot of the internet has actually already adopted: "Time you record yourself wasting isn't wasted."

2) I wanted to somehow get that new Sufjan Stevens album online
And I'm sort of tired of Audiosurf. Plus, Sufjan isn't really the sort of thing that works in Audiosurf. Well, this album actually sort of does, but I'll get to that later. Anyways, I was like, wow I'd be rolling in the views if I was the first one to get this to the Youtubing masses! And since the Audiosurf uploads were already pretty hit and miss but I didn't want to go the route of just uploading the album cover as a static image or something, that's just not my MO. So here we are again.

Anyways, this is my new project, I guess. Not that I've given up on my many other projects, just that I don't really do much with them most of the time, and I do end up spending a lot of time just dicking around on Tetris, so I might as well give some significance to the number under those videos and feel somewhat satisfied with myself. So I did, and I do. Hurray.

Anyways, here's some thoughts about that new Sufjan Stevens album.

Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
I really love Sufjan Stevens. Or at least, I really love certain things he does, and I really like other things he does. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but outside of a few tracks, stuff before Michigan just didn't do it much for me. Maybe that's just because I started listening to him then and didn't get the right perspective on his older stuff, but I think there's a definite shift that came after those two. Yeah, he moved away from doing electronic glitchy stuff, but he's come back to that occasionally, and that's not really the big change anyways. It's more subtle than that.

I think it's... he began to become more personal. I think I've mentioned before how much I like how Sufjan seems genuine and sincere in his music, and I think that's something that really started to develop in Michigan and Seven Swans, peaking in Illinois. It's all about this sense of hearing him put himself in the music, the level of emotional investment he gives it. This is something I look for in a lot of music of all genres, and it's almost song by song, or even line by line, you can hear it. This isn't really a profound thing, it's just, does the artist really feel this way, or were these emotions manufactured for the song? It's not just an on or off thing, either, but things on the extreme end of sincerity are usually damned good music. The Mountain Goats are usually there, as is the King Geedorah song "I Wonder", a lot of A Silver Mt. Zion songs, and, of course, Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely". Sufjan finds himself there too, in his best moments. You might wonder how I feel I can judge the sincerity of someone in a song when I can barely judge the sincerity of someone talking to me in person. To this I say, shut up, I just can.

Anyways, sometimes Sufjan's there in the music with you, and sometimes he's just singing it. Don't get me wrong, though, he's always pretty sincere, but only in his absolute prime does it feel like he's making himself vulnerable in the process. Compare something like "The Upper Peninsula", where he's obviously not singing about something that happened to himself, but sings as if this is a feeling that's been welling in him for decades, to something like "Too Much" off this album where his words seem definitely plausibly personal and definitely referring to sensitive issues, but seems... totally OK with it? I guess the difference is just that he's loud in one and quiet in the other. Not really. I think the big appeal to the first one is understanding exactly how he could be having that feeling with such sincerity despite it not being a true story. There's an element of mystery there. It's like Hamlet. I think the big chance of opinion I had about "All Delighted People" was my realization that, in many moments, the song does have this quality, despite giving the impression of being large and impersonally imposing.

OK, that's enough of things this album doesn't do. Or doesn't do too often, as this album does have glimpses of "naked Sufjan", if you'll allow me the figuratively descriptive but literally disturbing term. Maybe, like the song "All Delighted People", more will reveal themselves as I listen to it more, because right now only on a few tracks, like "Futile Devices" and "Now that I'm Older", which are non-coincidentally also the most similar to the state albums structure-wise, give me that sense. Somewhat ironically, I feel the most powerful section by this metric is the infamous auto-tuned section in "Impossible Soul", the "song that has everything".

Since I've mentioned it, I'll talk for a section about the autotune usage. It's one of two major things I noticed about this album that gave me the undeniable sense that, wow, this is not the Sufjan Stevens we knew. They both give the sense of him approaching a new idea with the innocence, and maybe naiveté, of a child, picking them up largely for their controversial status. It's like watching a little kid rebelliously smoke a cigarette and making himself sick before he can get halfway through. The autotune is the first one, and you can tell he's trying to use it as a bit of a satirical joke, but it's like he can't help himself and makes it sound beautiful too. He often sings a bit off key on purpose, and hearing that intentional flaw battle with the power of the tool gives a profound alien sense.

The other thing of this category is hearing him swear, and again, it seems more like a weird proof that he can rather than a genuine curse. It's pretty strong - "I'm not fucking around" - repeated a few times, too, but you can almost read the sarcasm in his voice. He knows talking like this doesn't make him bad and isn't a sin, and is sort of mocking those who do, but at the same time he still seems ashamed, and the fact alone that still seems to think of swearing as a relevant controversy in music is adorable. It reminds me of that scene in Flight of the Conchords where Murray is trying to tell off Bret and Jermaine, but can only manage an impassioned "frig off!". So we have an innocent kid making fun of the sinful, swearing, autotuned rappers, but with an element of uncertainty and shame in his voice, and you can't tell exactly where it stops being about him because it's all so genuine. Or at least that's my impression, but I can't be sure, because there's a paradoxical distance he puts between himself and the music when he's most invested into it. Isn't that cool? That's the sort of thing I'm looking for.

What I wasn't exactly looking for was a jam-packed closing epic, but I found it anyways. "Impossible Soul", I mentioned before, is the song that has everything, and at 25 minutes I feel like he's looked at "All Delighted People" and thought "I need to something twice as good for the LP. Probably not, but I digress. Like "All Delighted People", I was initially overwhelmed by this song, but after hearing it a few times and seeing better how all the pieces fall together, I'm liking it more and more. If it ends up being as addictive as "All Delighted People", I'm going to lose huge amounts of time. At any rate, this seems almost like an overture, or some ending equivalent, in it's encapsulation of the rest of the album. It has the enigmatic artistic presence that I was just talking about, and a Sufjan-traditional acoustic bit at the end that's really nice. On top of that, it has the anthem inspirational chant thing going on really strong, and that was the centerpiece of a lot of other songs. It even has the homosexual undertones! I think.

Speaking of that, the lyrics of this album range from really beautiful and touching to "inspirational sign on Church lawn" and swing between the two almost nauseatingly fast. I'm looking forward to picking them apart a bit better as I get to know them more, but as it stands it seems like general themes of Sufjan, or some character he's singing as, relishing in some guilt and using it to drive emotional wedges between him and his loved ones. After that he often implies that he stalks them or maybe kills them or something, perpetuating his cycle of guilt and redemption. He believes himself to be the lowest of humans, and then tries to prove it to everyone. It reminds me of Dmitri Karamazov, if you'll allow me to throw that allusion into the mix without fully explaining myself. From there he seems to take the path of Alyosha, championing redemption in purely idealistic messages. This cycle occurs many times on the album, often times all in one song or even in one verse. Most interestingly is the way it moves independently of the varying style of music, which itself has a pretty wide range of acoustic warmth to gospel shouting to glitch splattering, but that's classic Sufjan there.

It's no surprise, then, that one of my favorite songs of the album is one that combines all these elements and more: "Get Real Get Right" starts with a definitively electronic beat before mixing in fluttering orchestration that seems almost tongue-in-cheek in it's traditional nature. From there, Sufjan and his lovely backup singers switch between verse that tell stories of redemption that genuinely hit emotional chords, silly analogies and religious chanting that seems almost high school in it's deliberately and charmingly amateur quality. Then, in a move that falls nowhere short of brilliant, he shuffles the themes and the styles, and suddenly the "Do yourself a favor, get real, get right with the lord" chorus is sung in an aria, the glitch beat redoubles itself in an unexpected spot, and Sufjan really shows off his powerful voice in a conventional way that now seems out of place with the rest of the weirdness. Wonderful, all around.

There's a few other instances that pull of the impressive trick of getting so off base that a return to form is unexpected, and it's effective. "The Age of Adz", with it's cryptic subject matter and pounding rhythm, hits the sublime when it drops down to the Earth near the end and sounds like something circa Illinois, albeit with a sputtering beat that sounds like something by Frog Pocket. "Vesuvius" moves in the opposite direction, building up gradually before a major eruption (haha) that merely moves the song to the tone and style of much of the rest of the album, but sounds all the more powerful through the contrast.

When it's all said and done, this album will be another welcome and respected addition to his canon. If I can speculate a bit beyond my means, this sounds like the result of a failed attempt at another state album. Seems a bit harsh to say, but really, I don't think anyone would think less of him if he couldn't muster another album on the par of Illinois or Michigan that was also in that style and had the same subject matter pattern - I mean, who could, really? I think the attempt resulted in the All Delighted People EP. After that, he did what I think was the best possible thing: he didn't get hung up on what he couldn't do, so he took stock again of everything he could do. Sure, the result is a bit scattered and seems a bit too impersonal at times, but it succeeds in it's amazing variety. He just packed this thing with beautiful moments, giving no regard for what era of his career they were pulled from, and the result is amazingly well contrasted and gives a great picture of the entire breadth of his career and ambitions. This is Sufjan moving in every direction at once - maybe some of them I don't like as much as others, and maybe he isn't making as much progress as he would've had he picked one path and stuck to it, but his drive for innovation and betterment is as admirable as it is wonderful to listen to.


So that's that. And that's that for this post! I was going to talk about some other things but I ended up writing a lot about Sufjan. That's just how it is!

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