Sufjan Steven’s The Ascension is the Soundtrack to a Dystopian America
Sufjan Stevens has come a long way since he entered the public conscience in earnest with his soundtrack to the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. if you are looking for the same wistful, heartsick romance that made ‘Visions of Gideon’ and ‘Mystery of Love’ so popular however, you won’t find it in ‘The Ascension’.
Stevens’ latest album is a far cry from his early work. It sets itself apart from the playful ode to a midwestern American state that characterised ‘Illinois’, and the nostalgic acoustics of his ‘Carrie and Lowell’, instead forging a new musical identity in electronic disillusionment. Set against the backdrop of a technicolour album cover, the electro-pop album does away with Sufjan’s usual acoustic guitar and piano, and gives itself entirely to synthesisers.
The album’s debut single, ‘America’, feels eerily pertinent to current times. Though it was initially written in 2014, when Stevens was working on ‘Carrie and Lowell’, and it ended up shelved. Stevens stated in a press release that “it felt vaguely mean-spirited and miles away from everything else on Carrie & Lowell.”
Although, when he returned to the demo six years later, he “was shocked by its prescience.” It’s true that ‘America’ speaks to a weary despair which we have become all too familiar with in the past year. ‘America’, for all it’s prescience, precisely captures the political disenchantment currently ravishing the nation after which it is named.
The rest of the album takes on a similar tone, weaving a mellow soundscape of layered synths and drum machines with Stevens’ signature, breathy voice. It’s the soundtrack to the apocalypse, expertly capturing the bleakness that has been 2020 – but with his latest album, Stevens’ makes it bearable, as only he can.
Written by Riley Barber