Review: The Ascension by Sufjan Stevens
It would be a mistake to think of The Ascension as an album about the current political moment, even though its first single, “America,” suggested as much. While some reviewers have taken “America” as a hermeneutic point of departure and focused on the album’s relevance to a particularly chaotic election year, The Ascension turns out to be not a protest against political power as much as it is a protest against our own power – or at least our fantasies of it. The album is a religious and spiritual protest, which requires a new role from Stevens. Should one glance through the album’s lyrics, the end of every song credits the songwriter with contributing – in addition to vocals, guitars, and percussion – the “Prophet.” Though this refers to a particular brand of synthesizers, its inclusion is appropriate given the album’s prophetic tone.[i] It is not about this moment but for it.
This is significant given how successfully Stevens has developed a particular aesthetic throughout his career. In his first albums he was a banjo-plucking hipster storyteller, recounting histories from Midwest states, creating homages to Flannery O’Conner, and incorporating his own experiences into ambitious and introspective ballads. He took a notable turn with Age of Adz where he channeled aspects of the previous albums into an electronically driven apocalyptic work. Though Michigan and Illinois define his early music, Age of Adz was a fitting departure; its use of electronics distinguished it from his folk beginnings, but its baroque arrangements and elaborate orchestration in many ways conformed to what his fans had come to expect of him. In this light, The Ascension is, both in its music and content, the least predictably “Sufjan-esque” of his major releases. It is driven by synthesizers and drum machines and replaces his grand orchestration and gently interlaced guitar work with unashamed 1980s-inspired pop music. The pop element is not incidental to The Ascension’s vision – it is not a case of Stevens trying to reinvent or rebuild his music. Rather, the style allows him to say something about the mundane and banal that he would not have been able to otherwise say.[ii] While his former style was defined by his personal storytelling, this album is defined by its embrace of clichés like “make me an offer I cannot refuse,” “it’s now or never,” or “give me some sugar.” With the conviction that life is always and already meaningful, Stevens treats these catchphrases like profound mantras. To be sure, this approach has the inherent and ever-present risk that listeners hear these clichés as nothing more than clichés, but this risk is necessary to preserve Stevens’s difficult task: to recover the life of words without falling prey to platitudes.
In The Ascension, Stevens as prophet speaks out against the destructive desire to make the world into our own image and advocates for engaging with what is in front of us. This is not an easy balance to strike, and in fact seems to be one that is more often than not found in failure. The opening song strikes this melancholic tone, as the penultimate line of each verse vacillates between lamenting loss, confessing doubt, and underscoring the lack of time. On the album’s culminating title track Stevens sings in his signature falsetto of a prophecy that has arrived too late: “But now it strikes me far too late again/ That I was asking far too much of everyone around me/ And now it strikes me far too late again/ That I should answer for myself.”
This “prophesying” is therefore not meant to warn of impending societal doom but to caution against the various ways we avoid personal commitment, both to ourselves and to others. Peppered through the songs are straightforward affirmations of such commitment. Time and again Stevens reminds his listener that life involves a lot of work, which we must approach with a sort of pragmatic grace. “Tell Me You Love Me” ends with a note of determination in the face of life’s transience: “I’m going to love you every day.” The manic energy of “Ativan” builds to the conclusion that the speaker must “Do the best I can (with what I am).” Similarly, the chorus of “Ursa Major” rises over soft synths and angular, syncopated samples with the words “I wanna love you/ Until the earth runs through it/ I wanna love you/ And I’m definitely gonna do it.” These moments all register the understanding that life requires the daily work of devotion.
The album’s tone takes a confrontational turn at times to denounce those things that distract us from this task. “Death Star,” for example, is an unequivocal condemnation of human destructiveness, which announces to those who would seek to “expedite the judgement day” that “it’s your own damn head on that plate.” In “Video Games” Stevens critiques how people present themselves online but does not succumb to the cynical conclusion that all such expression is doomed to superficial voyeurism. The line “In a way I wanna be my own believer” evokes the need to rely on one’s inherent self-worth rather than looking for acknowledgement through likes and views. This does not mean that we should not participate in these games (“In a way you gotta follow the procedure”), but that our participation in them must be undercut by the knowledge that they will not fulfill us.
The album is therefore not a jeremiad in the traditional sense, but rather a persistent reminder to live gracefully within one’s means. Stevens is a prophet of a generation that counted on a bright progressive future realized through large-scale change, but matured into a world marked by technology’s failings, nuclear anxieties, the climate crisis, and political demagoguery. In a time where an individual has unprecedented access to knowledge of the world’s never-ending and ever-expanding problems, Stevens’s is a plea to understand and accept our place and to focus on that which we can affect.
This last point is the most important because although Stevens pleads to God for deliverance (“Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse”) and guidance (“Ursa Major”), he admits that there is no revelation big enough to take away all of his concerns: “I shouldn’t have looked for revelation/ I should have resigned myself to this.” This does not indicate a lack of belief in God’s ability to address one’s anxieties. It is rather the realization that we tend to ask for things we are not meant to bear.
Which leads to Stevens’s question at the end of “The Ascension”: “what now?” The closing question is the expression of a soul finally found and ready to move forward with the work at hand. What remains is the work of love: specifically, love of God and of our neighbors as ourselves. And this is where The Ascension is most Christian; for it is upon these commandments, after all, that the prophets depend.
Samuel McKnight is a composer and writer originally from Colorado. He is a recent Master’s graduate of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews.
[i] I find it difficult to believe that Stevens did not intentionally include these names for this very reason. Note also how in two tracks the Norwegian shoegaze musician Emil Nikolaisen is acknowledged as having contributed “black magic.” Sufjan Stevens, “The Ascension,” Bandcamp.com, https://music.sufjan.com/album/the-ascension
[ii] Given this, it is no wonder why Stevens chose to leave the extravagant and sprawling single “My Rajneesh” off of the record, releasing it instead as a B-side. Despite its obvious merits, everything about it – from the opening guitar patterns, to the story itself, or the inclusion of music from his song “Vesuvius” on Age of Adz – conforms to his older style. This also suggests to me that this album will remain an outlier in Stevens’s oeuvre.