If you’ve only known Sufjan Stevens for his breathy folk songs, imagine him now as a kind of pop cyborg recently touched down from some distant planet to warn us about the devastation we’re facing on Earth. This is the Stevens we encounter on his new record, The Ascension, his first solo studio album since 2015’s brilliant and sparse Carrie & Lowell. Of course, there was 2010’s The Age of Adz, his first major foray into an electronic sound. But unlike Adz, The Ascension isn’t cacophonous or head-spinning. It offers a tighter pop sound, yes with plenty of bleeps and blurps and sound effects, but also with lush melodic choruses and a message we can all understand: The world is crumbling.
Like a robot short-circuiting, Stevens plays with the idea of destruction sonically and lyrically on opening track “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse.” The theme of getting sucked into the vortex and losing your agency is at the forefront of The Ascension, which seems to suggest we make a getaway plan. “I have lost my preference,” he sings, enunciating each syllable of the word as though he is slowly morphing out of his humanness. The windswept escapism of “Run Away With Me” imagines the romantic fantasy of starting anew with a lover, far from the chaos. “They won’t terrorize us with new confusion / With a fear of life that seems to bring despair with it / They will paralyze us with new illusions,” he sings. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a similar lovelorn journey across vast landscapes to a greener pasture. In “Video Game,” Stevens waxes about the importance of being your own savior, instead of blindly following the flock. And “Ativan” finds him questioning his purpose. “Is it all full circle / Is it all part of a plan / Is it all for nothing?” he asks with a euphoric choral eruption slowly building like a mental epiphany behind him.
Stevens’ signature androgynous whisper sounds lush and controlled on The Ascension, and his tech-y arrangements take shape like orchestral symphonies. The album’s 12-minute closer, “America,” is the ultimate confrontation vocally and instrumentally, the star burning brighter and brighter until it explodes and disappears. Stevens chants in his highest octave, “Don’t look at me like I’m acting hysterical / Don’t do to me what you did to America / Don’t do to me what you do to yourself,” like a mantra he is willing into existence to push us through the dark times. Here’s hoping it works.