Sufjan Stevens has made a career out of ambition. From the now defunct plan of releasing 50 albums for each state that started with 2003’s “Michigan” and 2005’s “Illinois” to detailing, in excruciating detail, the feeling of grief after the loss of a loved one with 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens always seems to be doing something new on each studio album. With his new album, “The Ascension,” that new sound is evident from the jump: 80’s style synths and drum machines. And with this new electric sound comes more of a universal approach to songwriting as opposed to Sufjan’s often very personal lyrics. Unfortunately, the personality that comes across in Sufjan’s best material fails to translate on his longest record to date.
Opening with the dazzling, “The Age of Adz”-esque track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” the album starts off well enough. “Run Away With Me,” which follows soon after, is a soothing, if boring, ballad that features some of Steven’s most basic songwriting to date. While the tracklist instantly picks up with “Video Game,” one of the truly great songs on the entire record, it soon falls into a long stretch of mediocre material immediately after. Songs like “Lamentations” and “Tell Me You Love Me” have interesting ideas, but unfortunately the songwriting lets both down as they fail to hit their targets. “Ursa Major” and “Landslide” play back to back in the album’s track listing, which is ironic because they’re the most divisive songs on the record. Both feature vocal performances that can come off as cute at first, but can grow grating the more they’re listened to — especially “Ursa Major.” And in what is clearly the record’s weakest song, “Die Happy” is nothing but a refrain over an instrumental. The song plays to none of Steven’s strengths as an artist, and on a record that runs for an hour and twenty minutes could have easily been left on the cutting room floor.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have it’s fair share of highlights, though. “Video Game,” which was released as a single beforehand, is the most radio sounding song Sufjan has maybe ever released — in a good way. “Ativan” is a great song that plays to Sufjan’s strengths in every way “Die Happy” doesn’t, and if more songs on the record sounded like this one or the aforementioned opener, the record would be infinitely better. Songs like “Sugar” and “Run Away With Me,” in a vacuum, are good songs that suffer from being on an overtly long tracklist, with “Sugar” in particular being weakened by it’s ambient first half after an album that sounds very one-trick pony-esque. “Death Star” and “Goodbye To All That,” which play back-to-back on the album, flow very nicely from one to the other. However, the title track is, arguably, the best song on the album. With a slow buildup and great songwriting, the song is classic Sufjan Stevens at it’s best, with its only flaw being that it is the penultimate track as opposed to the closer.
Overall, “The Ascension” can be summed up by it’s actual closing track: “America.” When it was first released as a single, fans were split. Sitting at 12 and a half minutes, the song was certainly an interesting choice to make as the album’s first single. Unfortunately, the more you listen to “America,” the more the initial shine of it wears off. There is some good to the track, but by the end of it you question why it was necessary for it to be as long as it was. “The Ascension” is the same way. There’s some good here, but in the end it is too one dimensional to match up against Sufjan’s impressive discography.