Recently, the indie music world has been pulled taut between two very distinct ends of its Irony-worldview spectrum. Irony – that all- encompassing value of conscious discordance held by artists and audiences dwelling in places like Brooklyn and Portland – is an ingredient that you could say gives music its “indie” status. And for all the smug defeatism on the Gen Me periphery, the independent music world seems to be shrugging off the cynicism and fighting snark with two very different weapons: sincere folk-based orchestration and digitally futuristic innovation.
This tension could be further defined as the contrast of “where did we come from?” with the blinding chaos of “where are we going?” In this sense, the artist is both sage and soothsayer, preacher and prophet. If these categories are in fact the two ends of the irony spectrum, then Sufjan Stevens has tossed one hell of a curve ball into the mix with his long-awaited new album The Age of Adz.
In a recent article from Pitchfork, there was a curious term used that evoked murmurs of a musical changing of the guard. That term was “post-Merriweather world.” The Pitchfork writer was off-handedly referring to Animal Collective’s 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavillion, which has set the bar for indie music standards on the digitally prophetic end of the spectrum. The album is seen by some as this generation’s White Album. And generally speaking, that assessment is correct. The influence that Merriweather has had in such a short amount of time is remarkable. Here, Animal Collective created a near-perfect model of melody mixed with chaos. The album is filled with tribal beats, digital loops, Brian Wilson-esque vocals, and is utterly enjoyable, despite its abrasive tendencies.
Where Merriweather anchors the digitally innovative side of indie music’s ambidextrous sound, several other artists anchor the opposite end. Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Joanna Newsom, and Bon Iver all express the clean and sharp tonalities of American folk-based orchestration with their own unique spin. Stevens’s most popular albums drifted more into this arena, and may have inspired some of the aforementioned artists towards their current sound. Illinois (2005), Michigan (2003), and Seven Swans (2004) all contained plenty of flittering woodwinds, handclaps, feel-good choral arrangements, and reflective banjoes.
The two ends of this spectrum started as ironic-laden attempts at creativity, but have since undefined themselves to (forgive the semantics) ironically yearn for sincerity. This, in a fascinating artistic turn of events, has given us musical forms that range from four-part harmonies to crushing keyboards. But the theme that has emerged from this creatio ex nihilo has been a return to the stalwart value of authenticity. “First one to the most ironic sounding sincerity wins.”
If all that hasn’t tossed you into a tilt-a-whirl of post-modern pathos, then The Age of Adz will.
In The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has certainly flown over towards a “post-Merriweather” aesthetic, but he doesn’t go all the way there. Stevens cannot resist musing on where we’ve come from, and in this sense, he would seem to land somewhere in the middle of the irony spectrum. Adz is like a grab-bag of everything Sufjan. But more. Much more. Those hoping to hear something like a revamped hymn might be shocked to discover some of Adz’s new sounds. Like autotune.
But what is fascinating about Stevens’s aesthetic journey is that he has previously dabbled in a chaotic electronic sound in his early album Enjoy Your Rabbit. Diehard Sufjanians know that Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001) had more of an impact on Brooklyn’s electronica experiments than casual listeners care to acknowledge. You can hear premonitions of a “post-Merriweather” world in Enjoy Your Rabbit, yet Stevens decided to bank that prescience – at least partially – until now.
With Adz, Stevens is pushing the listener to evolve on both sides of the spectrum, if not create a new ear entirely. In one sense, his abrasive electronica is more in your face than ever (the title track, Age of Adz, at times sounds like a robot having a religious experience). But on the other hand, we hear recollections of the artist’s gentle folksiness in tracks like Vesuvius and Futile Devices.
But the final track, Impossible Soul, is really what the album is all about– or at least what everything leads up to. The 25-minute, 5 part symphonic epic approaches Wagnerian in scale, capping the album in jaw-dropping fashion. Ranging from mellow and contemplative, to probing and distorted, to catchy dance mix, to folk minimalism, this is where Stevens pulls out all the stops. The transitions are smooth and nearly inevitable, even when that autotune comes out. (When detached from its T-Pain prejudices, the autotune even seems to sound appropriately Sufjanian.)
The leitmotifs present in Illinois are even more subterraneous in Adz, giving the album Sufjan’s archetypal narrative feel, which isn’t surprising, considering he recently released his cinematic suite The BQE. One might even argue that it is Sufjan’s adherence to narrative that has set him above the post-modern irony humdrum, but Adz is far too grandiose for such a simple answer.
There is no doubt that Sufjan Stevens’s impact on the music world is huge. We have seen band after band take inspiration from his ambitious styling. Adz might have a similar influence; it certainly is large enough. Sufjan fans will find that a number of listens will be required to find all the beauty in Stevens’s incredible texturing.
The Age of Adz’s mysterious and epic qualities seem to give rise to the question: What happens to indie music when irony comes full circle? In the case of Sufjan Stevens, the answer is that it certainly won’t take us back to a familiar sound. But then again, what is irony’s aim if not originality?
If we were drifting above and beyond the irony spectrum, a sure sign would be an album with the scope of Adz. It would be unfair to label the album mystifying and difficult. If anything it is sincere and enjoyable in its own weird way. Don’t call it a revolution, but what we have in this stage of Sufjan is an indie-rocker from Brooklyn who gave autotune some heart. That is no small thing. And neither is The Age of Adz.