Is this the sound of a breakdown? Has America’s favorite indie son finally cracked? After listening to The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens’ latest astro-futurist-church-boy-monster-movie-freak-out, you might come to the conclusion that (a) he is genuinely losing his shit, in which case he needs get out of the studio and onto the therapist’s couch; (b) he’s exploring the “creative possibilities” of insanity and perhaps unfairly exploiting the cultural cred of American outsider art; or (c) he’s faking his own madness in order to deflect from accusations (inspired by recent interviews) that he’s losing his creative faith. I don’t know, and I guess it doesn’t really matter to me, because The Age of Adz is an outrageously fun and messy masterpiece. In fact, I can’t imagine a single social situation in which this album would be appropriate for a spin, but The Age of Adz, which ends with a 25-minute Auto-Tune funk jam, may be the best indie schlock party-of-the-damned album of the year.
The album starts off comfortably enough, with gently plucked strings and Stevens’ heavily multi-tracked whisper, but only to suggest that his past efforts were nothing more than “futile devices.” The song ends abruptly, with a declaration of failure, replaced by a sound that can only be described as Satan’s own laptop taking a dump in the sixth circle of hell (for heretics). This is indeed Stevens’ Inferno; “I’m suffering in noise, I’m suffering in touching,” he sings, “The burning from within/ I could not be at rest/ I could not be at peace.” There’s still a lot of prettiness on The Age of Adz, but these 11 songs are more often cruel and torturous, full of whipsaw shifts in rhythm and tone, layers upon layers of jarring electronic chaos, searing flames and volcanic eruptions of digital noise. All of Stevens’ famous compositional quirks — fluttering strings, blaring horns, zealous church choir — take a sadistic turn, so that the music seems full of vengeful spirits and demonic visions, sonic punishments designed for the lustful, the loveless, the proud, the selfish.
I’ve always thought of Stevens as our very own New Deal artist: refreshingly civic-minded with his songs about cities and workers and highways, and results-driven, providing not just slogans, but, like Guthrie before him, hard-hitting solutions for hard-hitting people. But the Depression Era was also known as a “grotesque” period in American culture; artists and writers desperately threw together styles and genres, producing beautiful monsters that exposed, rather than covered up, deep social and political fissures. The Age of Adz is truly grotesque in this way, not just because of its ugly sounds and feelings (“I’m not fucking around,” Stevens sings in “I Want to Be Well”), but because it mashes together a range of otherwise incompatible styles — electronica, 70s funk, classical hymnody, Krautrock, Mantovani strings, horror movie music, etc. — generating an awesome, anxious mess. This sloppiness is just plain refreshing coming from an artist known for his slightly arrogant perfectionism (50 States Project? Multimedia celebration of the BQE? C’mon.), but it also reflects deep tensions within the social fabric of contemporary America: between sex and spirituality, the culture of improvement and the worship of adolescence, the comforts of home and the violence of xenophobia.
Enter Louisiana sign-painter Royal Robertson, or, as he liked to be called, “Libra Patriarch Prophet Lord Archbishop Apostle Visionary Mystic Psychic Saint Royal Robertson.” The Age of Adz is built on Robertson’s apocalyptic outsider art of spaceships, laser guns, Venusian harlots, astral calendars, burning bushes, sea monsters, and angry saints. Four songs in particular — “The Age of Adz,” “Get Real Get Right,” “Vesuvius,” and “I Want To Be Well” — make up a mini-cycle within the album, a crazy-cosmic passion play in which the pains of love lead to a vision of fiery sacrifice and redemption. But Robertson was a paranoid schizophrenic and a scary misogynist whose often pornographic art suggests a much darker link between American sexuality and American religious prophecy. Stevens’ interest in Robertson seems a way of questioning his own visions (religious or otherwise), but it also suggests that Stevens himself has always been a kind of outsider artist, working on the fringes of the American scene in order to expose its deep contradictions. The obsessive-compulsive qualities of his art (think 50 States Project, ridiculously long song titles, that weird Gacy song, the 60-minute EP) recall the crowded, manic canvases of not just Robertson, but also Henry Darger, Melvin Way, and hundreds of other outsiders, all giving expression to an American dream gone wrong. If The Age of Adz is a mess, it is the wreck of culture at large.
But Robertson was also an African American, and Stevens’ references to his work seem to reflect his larger turn to funk and soul on The Age of Adz. Yeah, someone’s been listening to Prince again; the album is full of Revolution-era synths and drum machines, and the opening vocals on the title track are perhaps the best approximation of “Purple Rain” ever recorded by a white Christian indie rocker. The 25-minute long “Impossible Soul” has all the guilty kinky epicness of Isaac Hayes’ “I Stand Accused” and a shouting come-on chorus just like the one in Parliament’s “Dr. Funkenstein.” These elements not only add a new depth to Stevens’ usual fare, but allow him to explore the sexual underpinnings of crises that previously seemed blandly emotional or spiritual. By incorporating the sexy-spiritual redemption of 1960s soul and the afro-futurist utopianism of 1970s funk, he gives this otherwise unhinged album (and its general Christian ethos) some worldly warmth. In the end, as “Impossible Soul” peters out, Stevens sings, “Boy, we made such a mess together,” but this is a declaration of triumph rather than shame. The song might be 25 minutes long, but it feels like 30 glorious seconds of cosmic slop. The whole album is a gorgeous mess, and you’ll immediately want to be dragged through it all over again.