Well, c'mon, you knew he wasn't going to stick to the whole "50 states" project, making an album about each one in the union. For that, we'll probably have to settle for Sufjan Stevens' "Michigan" and "Illinoise" albums, plus "The BQE," (which probably qualifies as his New York album). With this eagerly awaited follow-up, after years of distractions (Christmas songs, outtakes, classical forays and more), Stevens faces his considerable tunesmith talents without a gimmick, no high concept to hide behind. He's a free agent, artistically speaking. "I felt burdened by the conceptual weight of my previous records," he recently told The Irish Times. "I just wanted to be straightforward, and it was necessary for me to shake it up a little bit. ... I was getting tired of that self-conscious, rambling psychobabble. I got really sick of myself and my own flawed, epic approach to everything."
Credit the boy with recognizing this peril before many of us did. Had he returned with, say, "Indie Anna," we'd have glanced at the map, realized the length of the ponderous journey ahead, and disembarked. That wisdom and self-awareness serves him well enough here to craft a curious transitional record. "The Age of Adz"(it's pronounced "odds") builds on the prog-rock he teased on the surprise "All Delighted People" EP earlier this year, fragmenting his song structures and loading them with (hold on) phat beats and electronic, actually ill noises. It's as if a very contemporary interior designer made over a Poterry Barn, piling garishly colored, angular furniture and accents all over the harmonious, earthy palates.
Stevens' original aesthetic -- the tender love songs, the delicate arrangements -- are still there, underneath. Sometimes they suffer under the weight of the synthy sounds. The title track employs a synth noise that sounds exactly like passing gas, hopefully unintentionally. "Too Much" is almost just that, cracked and broken by machine rhythms and skittering noises and a final half that clatters and wheezes in a thunderous, music-less finish. The song's lyrics perhaps describe his precarious creative position as a beloved artist seeking to turn left a bit: "So pick up your battering ram ... there's too much riding on that." Such statements of, or at least parallels to, his creative heart abound. In "Vesuvius," he re-creates the voices in his head: "Sufjan, follow your heart / follow the flame / or fall on the floor." In "Get Real Get Right," he apologizes: "I know I've caused you trouble / I know I've caused you pain / but I must do myself a favor and get real." There's not that much to feel sorry for. Usually the electronic and acoustic coexist, they agree to share the space; occasionally, they provide the perfect foils for each other, as in the stunning"I Walked," in which a simple beat and a whirring sound purr behind Stevens' whispered pleas, which turn out to be a grisly suicide note. It's not the most pleasurable listen in Stevens' catalog, which contains many, but at least it shows he's on the move -- and not just to write an album about Montana.