Wherein an artist switches genres with such reckless abandon and aplomb that makes the famous shift of Radiohead’s OK Computer to Kid A look like it’s standing still. Wherein an artist who we knew to sing delicate songs in delicate tones stands up to hurl ”I’M NOT FUCKING AROUND” at the world on the penultimate track. This is art pop for to make a case for the existence of the admittedly pretentious genre name for any of the doubters while simultaneously making any previous notions of “art pop” feel neither artsy or poppy enough to deserve the same classification. If you haven’t heard the album yet, but are privy to Stevens’ previous works, imagine something to the effect of every instrument played on Illinois … but played all at once. But with a generous helping of autotune and vocoder (Sufjan Stevens’ soulful yawn 12 minutes into “Impossible Soul” is perhaps the most soulful yawn there ever was).
The last song alone is so singular in its affirmation of life and love that the rest of the album could be dust and I’d still have no reservations in calling The Age of Adz my favorite album of 2010 (for the record, this album makes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seem neither beautiful or twisted or fantastical enough). For the people who are wondering where and when Sufjan Stevens is going to continue where he left off for his 50 albums for 50 states shtick, I say to you: he’s covered the remaining 48 in this one song (a proposal: Michigan and Illinois were albums that were hardly about Michigan and Illinois at all; remove the names of all the people and places and you have songs about anyone and anywhere).
Of course, that’s not to say that the preceding ten songs are bad, because they’re not. The muted guitar plinks throughout “Futile Devices” adds estrangement on the only song that would’ve fit on any of Stevens’ previous albums, while “You are life I needed all along” might be the most beautiful line of an album full of them. Meanwhile, the choruses of “I Walked” are heartfelt (“I walked because you walked / But I won’t probably get very far”); “Get Real Get Right” sounds like Sufjan is trapped in a labyrinth of a horror show for kids; “Vesuvius” is the album’s most calmest moment that doesn’t use acoustic instruments while “I Want to Be Well” is the album’s most frantic – frantic via flute, of all instruments.
Is the album perfect? Like Illinois, probably not: “Too Much” and “Age of Adz” sound like mere warm-ups compared to “Impossible Soul,” though Stevens’ command “So pick up your battering ram – LOVE! – I want to see it!” on “Too Much” that’s the album’s second best moment (more on the actual best moment later) and the introduction to “Age of Adz” is so bombastic, it knocks me off my feet every time; “Bad Communication” neither works individually or in the context of the album, while the obvious use of choir in the beginning of “Now That I’m Older” obscures the rich piano line underneath. But the more important question: Do I care? Should you care? Absolutely not: “Impossible Soul” exists.
As for “Impossible Soul,” the obvious comparison point is “Supper’s Ready,” Genesis’ own 25-minute multipartite closer. Admittedly, both songs fail to maintain the same level of interest throughout: “Supper’s Ready” had the useless “How Dare I Be So Beautiful” section, while I find Shara Worden’s part on “Impossible Soul” to be too dragged out for its own good. But like “Supper’s Ready,” both songs are about their holistic experience such that nitpicking becomes useless. And they’re both palindromic in song structure; where “Supper’s Ready” returned to the “Supper’s Ready” melody, “Impossible Soul” practically begins and ends with a solo Sufjan, asking you to examine what’s changed in the interim. And much has changed, evidenced by the shift in dialogue: “Woman, tell me what you want, and I’ll calm down” responded by “Boy, we can do much more together” responded by “Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.” (Oh, and speaking of Genesis, is that Steve Hackett himself with the chainsaw-revving to earth-splitting guitar solo at the 2:15 mark?)
So what’s happened in between? A documentary of the birth and death of a relationship resulting from bad communication between two people scarred of themselves more than they are of each other. “Having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward” is perhaps one of the greatest truths I’ve ever read and should be stated more often to a generation where casual sex has become the norm. George Costanza: “I don’t like it when a woman says ‘make love to me.’” Me: But why?!?!
Or, to borrow from Sufjan Stevens’ interview with Drowned in Sound about the meaning of the song: “’Impossible Soul’ is really about a very primitive object. I want to get with a girl, and there’s all these obstacles, and shortcomings, and miscommunication… and this is a basic fundamental of life, between two human beings […] what is at the heart of our inability to really connect? Is it fear, or is it self-consciousness? […] It’s no longer about, just like, “girl, I want to get with you.” It’s more like… what’s wrong with civilisation?” Why are we putting so much stock in all these technological advancements (‘age of adz,’ indeed) made to help us communicate when we never learned how to communicate in the first place?
So, what Sufjan Stevens’ answer? A “therapeutic discourse” that lasts a good seven minutes, beginning with a Flaming Lips-ian countdown that comes in at the perfect time (13:45) to save Sufjan Stevens from being devoured by his demonic insecurities (“Hold on, Suf / Hold on, Suf / Hold on, Suf / 1-2-3-4!”) in the album’s best moment. After that, Sufjan Stevens enters into a sing-along and dance-along of gigantic proportions with every line a mantra and slowly adding additional singers and triumphant horns into the mix – “In the wrong life, everything is chance / Does it register? Do you wanna dance? / In the right life, it’s a miracle! / Possibility! Do you wanna dance?” That section slowly patters out before Sufjan Stevens comes back with the album’s most tangible riff, finally having gained the courage to clearly communicate over top.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear a song – an album – that’s actually about something meaningful, and that states it very clearly, and that presents every side of the argument. To give this some context, let’s examine albums released that same year: God bless Kanye West (and He has, He has), but other than a single line in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that everyone seems to have missed, he doesn’t really care for humanity anymore (and why would he? He’s Yeezus, now). God bless Janelle Monae (and He has, He has), but it’s not like we’re able to extract any morals from the really vague and overstated concept of The ArchAndroid. God bless Arcade Fire (and He has, He has), but why is there substantially less heart on their return to the neighborhoods after a detour in post-9/11 America? God bless the National (and He has…with a good drummer), but why is there substantially less fight (/humanity) with every passing album? Besides Sufjan Stevens, only Joanna Newsom seems to get it – but that’s for another day.