By David Colburn
Twenty-five minutes is not a typo: “Impossible Soul”, the final track on The Age of Adz, is genuinely 25 minutes long. Perhaps that will invoke a sense of apprehension within the listener: will the song be repetitive to the point of utter boredom? Will it be too experimental to ever listen to on an enjoyable level? The answer to both questions is a confidently asserted “no”. In fact, “Impossible Soul” revels in all of the characteristics that colorfully accentuate the entire album. All of the melodic beauty, bombastic orchestration, and sonic experimentation are found in a manner that resembles reaching some distant destination after hours of travel; there is a recollection of the struggle simultaneously paired with a blissful sense of accomplishment.
For all of the electronic noise and musical diversity found on the album, The Age of Adz gently opens with a misleading serenity and familiarity. “Futile Devices” will easily remind listeners of quainter tracks from Stevens’ previous full-length album, such as “Casimir Polaski Day”. Instrumentally charming and dominated by Stevens’ comforting vocal timbre, the listener will initially prepare for an entirely uncontroversial and adequately pleasant sequel to the Come on Feel the Illinoise.
Such preparations are relentlessly dashed by the first few seconds of the perhaps-appropriately titled “Too Much”; loud, atonal glitches dominate the first twenty-five seconds (recalling an influence of Masami Akita much more than Nick Drake) before a beat and melody begin to emerge. After the initial shock, a slight return to comfort presents itself, this is still a Sufjan Stevens album beyond the dark electronic atmosphere. Whereas Feel the Illinoise strived in its relaxing, almost ambient pastoral quality, The Age of Adz shamelessly looks towards the future; tracks are beautifully arranged with an irrefutable sense of aural discovery.
One of the album’s strongest and most memorable moments exists in the introduction to the title track. Commanding choral and instrumental orchestration fearlessly congregates with pulsating electronics in a massively paved atmosphere of sound. Whether fiercely overwhelmed, hopelessly enamored, or a potent combination of the two, the listener is undeniably involved in the experience. With the prime declaration of the track: “This is the Age of Adz, eternal living!” a wave of excitement engulfs the surrounding area in pure belief.
“I Walked” operates with an equal amount of power, albeit in a different emotional manner. Stevens’ balladry is accentuated through moments of vocal reverb and choral involvement, presenting a track that is as aesthetically satisfying as sonically intriguing. Repeated listens of the track (and the three tracks that precede it) only solidify its overall value and effect.
There is plenty to enjoy and even cherish beyond the first half of the album. The hypnotic and almost celestial vocal production of “Now That I’m Older” and the catchy electronic elements of “Get Real Get Right”, but The Age of Adz is perhaps best experienced in small portions. While the album works well as a unified product, its 75-minute duration can be considerably overwhelming given the amount of aural diversity.
As each listening experience – responsibly spaced or ambitiously singular – progresses and concludes, the listener will develop a deep appreciation for the work and a desire to replay the material again and again. Challenging yet accessible in equal and often simultaneous effect, The Age of Adz can be described as a “great album” without second thought. Devoted fans of Come on Feel the Illinoise’s considerably different aesthetic will grow to find much to enjoy through the undeniable effort exerted by Stevens in the album’s creation, and soon “Too Much” will become “just right”.