Sufjan Stevens understands what it means to be alive in September, 2020. Many of his past albums are defined by folk-guitar laden grief, which would seem fitting for this moment; however, The Ascension – Stevens’ eighth studio album released on September 25, 2020 – eschews the hand-plucked melodies in favor of piercing synthesizers and blaring hi-hats. This newer and grander medium reflects a shift not in tone, but in subject matter, from 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. Where Carrie & Lowell ruminates on personal loss, The Ascension considers national loss—both in terms of the vastness of death in the United States as a result of the pandemic, but also America’s ever-quickening slide into misery and despotism. The juxtaposition of Stevens’ desperation with the upbeat tone leads to a compelling listening experience. For better or for worse, the album’s length cements its status as an album for our time—morbid, fascinating, and dragging on far too long.
The Ascension starts off strong, with a broad, ethereal sound that envelops the listener in wobbly synthesizer backing tracks and melodic vocal riffs. The first four minutes of the opening track, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” exemplifies this sonic high point; however, the song’s minute-long outro provides the first inkling that the rest of the album may not live up to that standard.
The standout feature of The Ascension is unfortunately its length. The 15 songs run an hour and 20 minutes long, and the shortest entry, “Ursa Major,” comes in at 3:43. On the other end of the spectrum, seven out of the 15 songs are over five minutes long and “America” runs 12:30. This would perhaps be less of an issue if the songs were more distinct from one another. For example, Stevens’ 2010 acclaimed experimental album, Age of Adz, has 11 songs stretching one hour and 15 minutes, but the time is filled by the album’s diverse sounds, whereas many of The Ascension’s songs are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Much of the length comes from the many extended synthesizer soundscapes. In addition to the aforementioned outro on the opening track, the intros are equally protracted. The first lyric of “Sugar,” for example, does not occur until three minutesinto the seven-and-a-half-minute song. That every song lasts just a little bit longer than expected makes for an album distinctly lacking in radio-friendly or relistenable hits, but that is not necessarily a contention against it, for the album’s ideas would be out of place on the radio even if each song fit concisely under 3 minutes.
Its religiosity stands out as a major throughline, which is customary for Stevens’ work. The title, of course, is a reference to Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, but the connection doesn’t end there. Stevens has referenced God frequently in past releases, but his relationship with God is markedly different this time. Here, he is not merely invoking the name of God or Jesus or even crying out to the Holy Spirit, but rather desperately wailing into the void, hoping someone will save him (and all of us). This is most evident on “Ativan,” the eerie seventh track: “Fill me with the blood of Jesus/Clean my plate ’til he receives us.” By the end of the album, however, Stevens has undergone a radical transformation. “I have loved you, I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he croons in “America,” the album’s finale and one of its highest lyrical peaks. Considering that Stevens’ relationship to Christianity has been a major part of his work dating back to his first album, 2003’s Michigan, this sudden break is a powerful symbol for the terrible newness of the 2020 experience.
Stevens also spends much of the album condemning the country at this moment in time. In “Ativan,” he includes a direct mention of the pandemic: “Put my head between my knees / I search myself for all disease.” On a broader scale though, he exudes a general sense of despair that is at the same time refreshingly honest and painfully close to home. In fact, he uses the word “hopelessness” in two songs, “The Ascension” and “Goodbye to All That.” Stevens, like many of us, finds himself struggling to comprehend and react to the state of the world. And, who can really blame him?
Each song individually does provide a compelling experience because outside of its repetitive style, The Ascension is unique and stimulating. “Die Happy,” which is almost six minutes of Stevens repeating the line “I wanna die happy” until the phrase loses all meaning, is somehow the right song for a very specific moment—one in which the world just seems to be too much to bear. As a complete album, though, it drags on too long. During my first listen through, I found myself continuously feeling as though it should have ended already, yet I somehow still had a few songs to go. Despite its length and persistently agonizing tone, the final chord of the last song is major. If The Ascension is an album reflective of late-stage 2020, perhaps after the long slog through this year, we too will somehow come out the other side in a better place than where we started