Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

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.

You can buy or stream The Ascension on Apple Music.

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

kiel_hauckNadia 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.

Most Anticipated of 2016: #8 Daughter Reappear


Are Daughter ready for their close-up?

With a resume chocked with appearances on Letterman and KEXP and tours with The National and Ben Howard, England’s Daughter shouldn’t require introduction or long for a “break out” with their second album. Not to Disappear, set to drop in a few days, should position Daughter in equal standing with Sufjan Stevens, Deerhunter and Justin Vernon.

Debut, If You Leave, 2013 (4AD) was lauded for its desolate atmosphere and emotional breadth, with singer/song-writer Elana Tonra’s impressive disguise of cut-me-open vehemence in a soothing, warm delivery its calling card. Numerous accolades, including “Independent Album of the Year” at the AIM Independent Music Awards, followed the release and several tracks even appeared in hit shows such as “Mistresses”, “Gray’s Anatomy”, and “Skins”.

Two years later, expectations are at a zenith for Tonra and company. Repeating the poignancy rarely felt outside Grizzly Bear’s Horn of Plenty, Steven’s Carrie and Lowell, or the ineffable Sigur Ros catalogue is nearly indomitable, but Daughter seem doggedly opposed to walking the tightrope between playing it safe and completely reinventing their sound. Early indications allude to Tonra and band-mates Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella progressing the invariable disquiet.

The group released the single, “Doing the Right Thing” and accompanying video late last September, which is every bit as disconsolate as its predecessors with the track’s central focus “concerning the delicate subject of dementia and its debilitating, all-pervading effect on family,” according to the press release. Aligning with producer Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, War On Drugs, Animal Collective), and choosing chilling album artwork by abstract painter, Sarah Shaw, prove Daughter is sticking to psalms of isolation and melancholy.

by Kevin Sterne

kevin-sterne1Kevin Sterne is a writer and journalist with a passion for music, art and creative perspectives. He lives in Chicago and is earning an M.A. in Writing but mostly thinks the English cannon is for douches. The best concert he’s been to was Sufjan Stevens at Eaux Claires. Follow him on Twitter @kevinsterne or read more of his work here:

Eaux Claires Festival a Celebration of Art, Nature and Friendship


Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens and their Midwest friends shine at inaugural festival.


When Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner announced their plans for a music and art festival, they were quite clear in what they wanted. Something different; a festival with unique feel—an event bringing people together in the woods to watch art happen. Purposely set July 17 and 18 (the same weekend as Pitchfork), Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival promised to, according to Vernon, “infiltrate the idea of a festival with new ideas.”

Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun.

Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun.

New ideas arise from inspiration, and Vernon invited his artist friends from the upper Midwest, along with 22,000 supporters, to the woodlands where For Emma, Forever Ago was famously written and the legend was born. Festivalgoers walked down a half-mile wooded path to a small clearing in the arms of the Chippewa River. It was a return to nature; “a benediction,” as festival emcee Michael Perry put it. All weekend, every artist reiterated Eaux Claires was about music and nature.

People weren’t here to take selfies—I felt awkward every time I checked my phone. And there was little need for technology. Every person received a yellow field journal with event times, artist bios and a map of the grounds. We weren’t bombarded with corporate advertising. Everything was local (we drank Summit Brewing beers instead of Miller Lite). No spinning a wheel for a drawstring bag, no credit card signups. Instead of a cacophony of logos and competing brands, everything fit under creative director Michael Brown’s unified aesthetic of simple and clean black and white. Nature filled in the rest.

The sun set both nights over the Chippewa River, casting a wave of orange gold over the grounds and into the forest canopy. Friday night began with The Tallest Man on Earth and ended with Dessner’s The National, with Sufjan Stevens and Vernon joining for songs.

Eaux Claires was a very come-as-you-are gathering.

Eaux Claires was a very come-as-you-are gathering.

It was Vernon’s festival but Sufjan stole the show with a set that encapsulated everything the two-day festival had to offer, playing his ukulele as much as his synthesizer, while combining film and lighting to share vignettes about his life and childhood. The set began with a foggy wall of synth and feedback, which had fans waiting in anticipation: How would he balance his darkest, most personal album, Carrie & Lowell, with the swaying summer crowd? He did it by being honest, diving right into the acoustic opener “Death With Dignity”, and then admitting he was very nervous and doesn’t play festivals because he is “agoraphobic and terrified of contracting lyme disease or an STD or whatever.”

It was a statement of courage rather than a begging for sympathy, and every lyric landed with the heavy feeling he was getting something off his chest. The crowd even cheered him back to life after he forgot the lyrics to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, then sang the outro with him: “Da da da, da da da da”. And, in a special way, the whole weekend could be summarized in that moment of acceptance, celebration and friendship.

There was no Miller Lite to be found at Eaux Claires.

There was no Miller Lite to be found at Eaux Claires.

“If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything,” Vernon told the crowd at the beginning of his set to close the festival. Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun, braved 2 a.m. tornado sirens, rain and lightening, and shared coffee the next morning as Vernon sound checked for Bon Iver. It was a very come-as-you-are gathering – no need for festival cosplay: a mixture of man buns and jean cut-offs, farmer’s tans, sundresses and t-shirts. Of young and of old. No screaming, no getting tanked, no bumping and shoving. No matter who you were, you were there for music.

The Lake Eaux Lane stage and Flambeaux stage took turns filling the grounds with sound. No one needed to push their way through the middle of sets to get a spot for the next act. After Sufjan Stevens finished playing, everyone simply turned around to hear Bon Iver on the Lake Eaux Lune stage. Vernon thanked everyone for “making the right choice,” but thanks go out to every artist and the beautiful city of Eau Claires for making the choice so easy.

by Kevin Sterne

kevin-headshotKevin Sterne is a writer, blogger and journalist with a passion for music, art and new ideas. He’s currently earning an MA in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University. For more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.