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Sufjan Stevens rises to a new level with “The Ascension”

The much-anticipated album from Sufjan Stevens, “The Ascension” dropped this week and it brings together Stevens’ style from the past and his aesthetic moving forward. 

The album, released under the Asthmatic Kitty label, is the 45-year old indie artist’s eighth studio album and features 15 tracks of varying lengths. The album runs approximately 80 minutes and was released on Sept. 25. The album’s primary theme is examination of aspects of Stevens’ life as a musical artist. 

Musically, the album runs in an extraordinarily eclectic way. Stevens has always been an artist known for experimentation and this album only reinforces that idea. Stevens’ voice is quite soft, adding a certain folksy feel to his music regardless of the actual genre. Sufjan uses primarily electronically produced sounds but also uses very clear acoustic elements such as featuring drum set primarily in this album. He also utilizes sampling of unique sounds to create a more diverse musical fabric. Another feature of Stevens’ music as a whole is his use of his own voice as a backing instrument, recording extra lines to fill out the texture of any particular song. This might also be interpreted as trying to emulate choral sounds as a large majority of his music feature religious themes and imagery. Stevens’ use of rhythm is not especially unique from other commercial music artists but like many other artists, he attempts to create rhythmic interest by writing music that appears to be organized one way in terms of rhythm and meter but once a drum backing track kicks in, it is revealed to be organized another way. 

In terms of thematic element, it’s quite similar to Stevens’ other music but this album is more heartfelt. Stevens’ fans are known for their obsession, albeit within their small community. Stevens’ perception of these fans is often the subject of his music. In tracks like “Video Game” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” Stevens examines the obsessive nature over his own music. In “Video Game,” he talks about being their “personal Jesus” or their “Julius Caesar,” as sort of a martyr figure. This perception is probably about his own feelings of disappointing his fanbase, even though there’s no danger of that. Additionally, the album has quite a lot of sadness caked into the music. Many of the tracks on the song directly reference death or at the very least, wishing that this life was more fulfilling. Stevens is an outlier in this regard. His music has a certain realist quality to it that can be refreshing for the right person. However, it should be noted that this approach to music is not for everyone. He often combines these traditionally negative thoughts with dissonant or unusual soundscapes to represent the theme of the song in two different ways. 

Ultimately, “The Ascension” by Sufjan Stevens is another hit in his discography which combines the best of both worlds. The album features hard realism and positive thoughts, experimental sound worlds and traditional commercial styles. “The Ascension” receives an A-plus rating. 

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