The Age of Adz

Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: The Age of Adz
Best song: “Too Much” is great. “I Walked” is the proverbial jam.
Worst song: Well, whatever. It’s a good record. I’m conflicted. See below.

I’m not sure how I got involved with scrobbling my music to, but I’ve been a member of the site for quite a while (since Nov. 2004, in fact). The site records all the tracks I listen to on my iPod, through iTunes and through sites like It, essentially, records about 90% of the MP3s I hear in my life.

There are different time-frames for the artist charts, but my default page shows my cumulative plays since Nov. 2004. The cumulative chart isn’t all that surprising, for the most part. Tortoise, Elliott Smith, the Sea and Cake, etc. Pink Floyd makes an appearance. Mogwai’s on there. The Beatles. That sort of thing.

Two artists that are largely not in the recent charts — certainly not recent releases — are Pinback and Sufjan Stevens (well, kinda, because I’m writing about him here, so I listened to a lot of the new record). Pinback is a band I’ve mostly forgotten. There’s a lot of angular guitar, cool vocals and interesting arrangements, but ultimately, I haven’t been able to really ever put that band in my heart. There’s a lack of tender emotion in the record that exists in Stevens’ records.

Sufjan Stevens was one of the first artists I embraced when I got back into indie rock after a year of post-college soul music listening. My sabbatical from indie rock made me miss the boat on a bunch of bands (the first Feist record, TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, etc.), but Stevens’ Illinois was recommended to me and I embraced it fully. I continue to love the album, as well as its predecessor in the so-called 50 States Project, Michigan.

Those records completely toe the line of too-ironic/too-sincere. They’re brilliant in a way, somehow being a moment in indie rock time that is long gone. It’s easy to go too far now, it’s easy to split the ridiculous arrangement genre and fall into parody. On the other side, a million too-sensitive singer/songwriter types flail at emotion. Stevens’ literate, clever songwriting is mocked and copied, but, man, it’s hard to replicate or perfect.

Illinois and Michigan do that, of course.

Of course, there’s always the other side of it.

Everything happens at a time and a place for someone, including the dissection/consumption of culture. I’m lucky to have been old enough, for example, to see the Star Wars prequels as complete turds. Someone 10 years younger than I probably thinks that Jar-Jar Binks is cool.

Those two Stevens records came out at a time of tremendous isolation in my life. I was getting back into indie rock and tiring of various Ben Gibbard projects. I was lonely, sad and in a new place, both socially and physically. My girlfriend and I had broken up some time before. I was living alone, and in between the parts of my life that would eventually come later (grad school, friends in DC, softball, etc.).

Who knows what I would’ve made of Stevens had I been introduced to him a few years earlier or later? Certainly, the timing was lucky and I fell in love with those two records and shared moments with them that I hadn’t with others.

Stevens’ progression has been frustrating and maddening. The Avalanche was great in that the outtakes from the Illinois sessions were a perfect substitute for a new 50 States record. The sounds were similar, there was a familiarity that rang true. The record was different, but in name only. The same emotions, arrangements dot the album. Hell, even a few of the songs — particularly the different versions of “Chicago” — have such a familiarity that they feel like home. The comfort there brings back the same feelings, despite a different name and distinction.

Songs for Christmas was a departure and a foreign one, at that. The BQE is a completely different thing — nothing close to a normal Stevens record. There’s no connection and no real way to try and relate it, as I stand here as a fan of Illinois and Michigan.

The Age of Adz is somewhere in between and that makes it maddening. My general feeling is that the record is not a departure, but an evolution. Stevens works more electronics into the record (“Too Much” and “I Walked” are the first two to come to mind, but the whole record is like that) and he works more choir-type vocalizations from background singers (“Now That I’m Older”). The songwriting isn’t the same, as it’s not arranged to be quirky, storytelling or literate as his earlier records.

It’s different. It’s evolved. But, I don’t want different or evolved.

No relationship stays the same. It’s just the nature of life. Two people in love will stick together and grow together; this is the beauty of the nature of such love. Friendships work similarly. I had what I consider to be a somewhat meaningful conversation with a close friend this past week that I would not have had with him even a month ago. This is not without its worth.

The best bands can be appreciated and enjoyed even through their evolutions. I don’t expect a band to be the same all the time, though those bands exist (Neil Young, AC/DC, etc.). My ability to appreciate the nuances of a Tortoise record — the first record, the most recent one, whatever — grows with each year, just as the band’s different output grows and changes.

Some bands, though.

I wish I could go back to the first time I ever heard a band or the few albums in which we grew together. When we were attached at the hip. When the only thing I played on my iPod was that band.

Look, I didn’t spend all of the time only listening to Stevens, Stevens-related music (Rosie Thomas, St. Vincent, etc.). I changed, too. I got far into Judas Priest and Mastodon. My tastes changed, no doubt.

And, really, what was I to expect? Nothing last forever, as Axl Rose once sang.

Intellectually, I knew the 50 states project wasn’t going to be fulfilled. Intellectually, I know that Stevens is a real human being; he’s an artist that needs to grow and change and evolve and all those things. He owes me absolutely nothing, as a fan. I bought his records and I love his stuff, but, ultimately, life has to go on.

And that’s hard.

The reason it’s hard is because the album has the tinges. Stevens can evolve and he can change, but there’s enough on The Age of Adz that reminds me of those times.

But, that makes the record difficult. I can’t listen to it often; it reminds me of what used to be. There are little vocal pieces on the record (“Too Much,” specifically, has a few) that sound like they could be taken off the blips and bloops and orchestrated into an Illinois-type piece. I know that Stevens’ gorgeous voice fits better in that type of record, but this is the path he’s chosen; this is the path that fits his life right now. I know that few are better at creating little soft confessionals like Michigan‘s “Romulus” and “Holland” or Illinois‘ “Casimir Pulaski Day.” But he’s not doing that. He’s moved on. Just because it feels the same as it did then doesn’t mean it is the same. Fleeting moments do not a singer/listener relationship make.

Music, as is life, is more complicated than that.

The joy, of course, is that I pick Illinois and Michigan up whenever I want. And I do. They’re audio pictures of the relationship I had with Stevens, bringing back the memories and feelings I had in first listening to the records. This is why Stevens is still one of my top artists on my charts. I still pick up those old records, like photographs from years ago, and reminisce.

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