Sufjan Stevens The Ascension Asthmatic Kitty Records
“It’s funny,” Sufjan Stevens said, back in 2017, “I feel less and less a personal grief – maybe I worked that out on Carrie & Lowell… Now I feel a universal dread. It’s not my problem, it’s our problem… But I like that. I like using the plural pronoun now.”
2015’s Carrie & Lowell was very much in the first person: a deeply autobiographical record that looked intensely inward. The Ascension sees him turning his gaze outwards. Surveying the tumultuous hellscape of 2020 you can imagine there’s a lot to say (which might explain why the album runs to 80 minutes).
Rather than revisiting the sparse instrumentation of Carrie & Lowell, The Ascension is closest to the shimmering synth symphonies and weirdo electronics of The Age of Adz – a sprawling soundtrack for his tender, caressing voice as he sings about doubting his faith and doubting America.
These are grand themes and, throughout, the record cosmically fuses together the epic and intimate. Ativan crunches as he pleads “Is it all for nothing?/ Is it all part of a plan?” while Goodbye to All of That is melancholic-euphoric Sufjan at his best.
On the stunning title track, the record’s denouement, he looks inside at himself and, in plaintive falsetto, notes his foolishness at thinking, “I could change the world around me”. Yet the song ends with strength and resolve in the knowledge that you can only do as much as you can. In 2020, it’s a thought we ought to cling onto.