One of music’s most inventive yet elusive artists breaks his five years of silence with a very unexpected sound. Sufjan Stevens emerges from his hiatus with Age of Adz, an electronic-beat and synthesizer laden tech-symphony wildly different from his critically hailed orchestral-folk efforts of years past. The transformation is one that is sure to catch faithful listeners off guard, and leave his fan base’s reception divided.
Age of Adz is, put most simply, a very good album. Stevens’ honed lyricism and emotive vocal abilities show no rust despite his respite. On top of that, his instrumentation remains high quality, even if not quite as masterful as his previous efforts. The drastic turn in style, however, is one that makes Age of Adz very difficult to compare to previous albums. Absent is the endeared American-folk styling. The orchestral backings show up, only they’re more melancholy and Stevens’ beloved banjo does not play a single note.
Once more, Adz, lacks the high points that blew away fans and critics in his Illinois or Greetings from Michigan albums. No track quite matches the masterpiece-quality of past singles like “Chicago” or “Casimir Pulaski Day.” For the most part, the album comes across as a bit of an artistic experimentation of Stevens: a musical wizard trying new tricks. There are, however, a few standout tracks. “Vesuvius” is probably the best pairing of excellent lyricism and dynamic melody. Leadoff track “Futile Devices” is a bit more of a taste of Sufjan-past. The utterly bizarre “Too Much” experiments with cacophony as if it were using Sleigh Bells’ producer, however it catches on quite quickly. Even the 25-minute-long “Impossible Soul” is a well constructed work on its own and avoids the repetition or stagnation of most extra-long tracks.
Sufjan Stevens has forgone the dramatic, fan-relieving comeback, by breaking his silence with a venture into a new artistic direction. While it is subpar compared to his high standards, Age of Adz is still a praiseworthy album. For fans worried about the permanence of this new direction, his two-month-old EP All Delighted People should be a relief. For music listeners new to Stevens, Age of Adz is less than an ideal way to start, compared to Illinois or Seven Swans. While his return to the music scene is solid, Stevens does not resolve fans’ desire for more of the old musician, or at the very least, his banjo.