Love in an Age of ‘Adz’

Something is rotten in the land of hipsters. Something has gone very awry. Sufjan Stevens released his first full-length song-based album since 2005’s “Illinois” on Oct. 12, 2010.

After ditching his ambitious 50 States Project, Stevens released an album of outtakes from “Illinois,” a Christmas album, embarked on a film and music project entitled “The BQE” that personified the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and abruptly released the EP “All Delighted People” on Aug. 20, 2010.

On “The Age of Adz,” adz pronounced ‘odds,’ Stevens abandons his typical blend of gentle folk-acoustic music in favor of heady electronic and orchestral synthesis. Gone are the banjos and softly strummed guitars, gone are the words half-sung, half-whispered.

The album’s opening track, “Futile Devices,” seems to capture Stevens’ new attitude toward music. The instrumentation echoes his usual style. A gently arppegiated guitar chord comes in first, followed by a piano. He sings: “And I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard/So I won’t say it at all/And I won’t stay very long/But you are the life I needed all along/I think of you as my brother/Although that sounds dumb/Words are futile devices.”

Stevens, it seems, is tired of the simple folk beauty of his first five albums. When he released his debut album “A Sun Came” in 2000, Stevens’ music was notable for its raw simplicity. Power sprung from silent spaces between the notes and his wispy voice. He was the bard of the Midwest; the spirit of cornfields and bending stalks of windswept wheat.

Then it enters on the second track, “Too Much.” Looped electronic effects blend together in haphazard layers. Stevens’ voice cuts abruptly in. And yet as different as this new track initially sounds, it echoes his old musical style. “Too Much” features his usual orchestration of horns, strings and flutes, all seamlessly blending with the electronic effects to create a wall of sound.

The album’s most talked about track is its lengthy finale, “Impossible Soul.” At 25 minutes and 35 seconds in length, this track clocks in as one of the longest single tracks outside of jazz or classical music. Much of the debate revolves around the song’s innovation, or lack there of. Casting aside its length, “Impossible Soul,” is still a song that merits careful listening. It is divided into three movements. The first lasts about eight minutes and 25 seconds, and builds on the gentle, though somewhat jarring, opening chords. Stevens builds on the opening, adding a harp, drums, his voice and a brass section, and then the electronic effects come in.

The second movement starts at about 8 minutes and 30 seconds. The blaring electronic chaos of the first movement tapers off into a fuzz of dreamy white noise. Everything seems as an afterthought. At about 10 minutes, 20 seconds, Stevens starts to sing again, his voice autotuned. Maybe this is what has all of the hipsters angry. Perhaps the use of autotune, which became one of the most used effects in pop, club, rap, etc. music during the past year, has come to be seen as a symbol of everything that is rotten in the music business. Nobody has to try to sing anymore. They can just autotune their voice and it comes out pitch-perfect along with a cool-sounding, electronic-tainted sound. But all this doesn’t seem to cloud the music that Stevens made, even in spite of the angry hipsters ranting along on “THE INTERNETS! They are angry!”

The second movement continues on, in a homage – or parody – of dance club music. Then the strings come back in behind the electronica. Stevens’ voice floats above it all. “Boy, we can do much more together/It’s not so impossible,” Stevens sings. The brass section enters.

The third movement lasts for only the final 3 minutes and 15 seconds of the song. Stevens comes in with an intricate pattern picked on an acoustic guitar. A second guitar comes in on the back end. His voice, half-sung, half-whispered, floats on top. “Boy, we can do much more together,” he sings, ending the album with a musical echo of how he began it on “Futile Devices.”

After listening to “Age of Adz” from beginning to end, it’s easy to see what Stevens is trying to accomplish. It’s precisely what he has always sought to do. By incorporating elements from many different musical styles and skillfully blending them, Stevens is further enhancing his – and our – musical palate. Think if he had chosen never to put down his banjo and forever remained that quaint, folksy guy. As for the angry hipsters — remember that this isn’t Stevens’ first foray into electronic music. In 2001 he released “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” an electronic album based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Rating: 4 out of 5