Over the years, I’ve gone through a lot of phases in my frequent listening. I’ve talked a lot about my emo years and the time I caved and dove into Top 40 territory, but I’ve never really gotten into the couple of years I spent on the folk side of music. Cottagecore before it was called that, if you will. I used to bake cookies to the dulcet tones of The Lumineers and Ben Howard; it was a brief and peaceful time when I could play music on the kitchen speakers without protest from my family members.
Among my favorite albums in this time was 2015’s Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens. He provided a modern incarnation of what I imagine John Denver would have created had he not been taken from us so soon. I moved into a new season of listening eventually, but have been brought back into Sufjan’s arms with his latest release, The Ascension.
One of the many things I like about Stevens’ music, akin to his musical cousin Bon Iver, is the thoughtfulness with which he creates. Each choice is painstakingly made, but his finished product doesn’t force us to painstakingly listen. With The Ascension, he steps away from a soft sound into pop; a natural progression for Sufjan, because he’s ventured into the territory before. And of course, as many of my pieces tend to do, we have to speak on religion.
I don’t know what draws me to albums of apostasy and the like, but it’s like a siren song to me. I can’t look away. Songs begging for a higher power to explain things we can’t understand are a heart’s cry of mine; I’m glad when someone else can make sense of the emotion and bring it through the production process so I don’t have to. Right out of the gate, Sufjan asks if he can bargain with God to maybe make this experience of living any easier. With tracks like my personal favorites, “Ursa Major” and “Landslide”, he’s found himself looking for love and forgiveness, and he ends up finding it.
Carrie and Lowell was a chore of an album, and The Ascension is the opposite. The songwriting is simple and repetitive — a true pop hallmark — but it still carries the weight of a traditional Sufjan album. He still wrestles with his same emotions regarding love (“Run Away with Me”) and loss and society (“Lamentations”), but he wraps it up in a reviving electropop bow, just enough to get our hopes up before opening the box to find another sad Sufjan song. We finish the album with “America”, a scathing portrait of the depravity the USA has fallen into. It’s a fitting end to an album that is mostly introspective, but Sufjan shows the truth that out of the heart the mouth speaks, and we find ourselves wondering whether this album is about him or about us as a whole.
I quite like this iteration of Sufjan Stevens. He’s learned, like many of us over these past few years, that circumstances can change on a dime, so we ought not to take ourselves too seriously. Songs like “Die Happy,” made of just a simple refrain, have become a genuine cry in our time, surrounded by so much death, grief, and loss. With The Ascension, Sufjan shows that these emotions can coexist with positivity, so even though we may be crying, we may as well dance, too.
by Nadia Alves
Nadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.