Album review: Sufjan Stevens melds pop and electric in “The Ascension”

Atmospheric is the perfect word to describe Stevens’ eighth studio album. Traditional to his style, the 15 tracks all hold a certain ephemeral feel, being grand, mysterious and massive. 

The album starts with the glitchy “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” a mix of clear pop vocals, and a clock-like beat. This track reminds me of some of Stevens’ newer work. This entire album, while holding his signature tone, still has some clear modern influences. 

The next two tracks sound extremely similar. When an artist like Sufjan Stevens creates a sound for themselves, tracks can blend together and sound very alike. In this album he uses electronic and tech-based beats mixed with clear vocals, but even then, as inspired as they are, his tracks sometimes sound too similar to differentiate. 

The fourth track “Lamentations” brings back the digital, clock type beat from the first track. Lively, methodic, but still chill, this track is reminiscent of something by Aphex Twin, or even some of Lady Gaga’s newer tracks. 

On the fifth track, one of my favorites “Tell Me You Love Me” has a big cacophony moment, a grand burst of backing vocals and massive electronic instrumentals. This track stands out for its epic climax and longing vocals, a cry out to the void, “Please tell me you love me.”

“Die Happy” and “Ativan” seem like an interlude, a break in the middle of the album. When looking at albums as a whole, keeping the flow and track continuity, I find this album to be lacking – specifically between these two tracks. The link between them is almost non-existent, and abrupt. 

Next, and potentially my favorite track, “Ursa Major” again yells “I want to love you,” but this time it feels sterner, less desperate. The soft drums, again, glitchy vocals and purposeful instrumentals create another small pocket of ambiance. 

“Landslide” feels more like a pop song. It’s got a medium tempo, and very understandable lyrics. This track is almost like MGMT and Deadmau5 traveled back to 2014 and wrote a song together. It is solid, chill and non-threatening.

The 10th track, “Gilgamesh” is more complex than the previous track, with a harsh drum breakdown halfway through. This moment is heavy, and feels almost like a traditional EDM style drop, with a lengthy lead-up. 

If there were any tracks on the album that I would associate Christmas with, “Death Star” would be it. It has an almost carol-like back vocals, with fantastic use of jingle bells. Like “Gilgamesh,” this track has a hard breakdown, but ends with an angelic combination of vocals. I would put this in my top three off the album. 

“Goodbye To All That” is poppy and has the feel of a free anthem. This track incorporates an addictive robotic sample that can’t help but portray a lonely droid who wants to relate with his peers. You can feel that the album is coming to a close, and this track is the beginning of that end.

Unfortunately, the last three tracks don’t feel special to me. This album was good, I can see the work, the production and intention, but even on the fifth listen, it is not for me. I find the vibes to be present, but the complexity was lacking. If simple, somewhat digital music is something you enjoy, please, give “The Ascension” a listen. It is far from my favorite Sufjan Stevens’ work, but there is a lonesome charm to it. The tone and ambiance are certainly there, but without real diversity between the tracks, the replayability is completely lost.

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