The Tripwire: Sufjan Stevens Once Again Makes a Fine Case for the Album

Photographer Danny Renshaw

A bit lost in the shuffle of our collective CMJ hangover last week was the (slightly anticlimactic) ending to the Sufjan Stevens/Asthmatic Kitty versus Amazon saga. Sufjan’s sixth proper album, The Age of Adz, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, far and away the highest debut a Sufjan album has ever seen. Moreover, the conversation can actually shift from an indie label versus an Internet titan to the album itself, and that turns out to be a very good thing.

It’s become increasingly difficult in recent years to know what to make of such charting numbers, especially when you take into account the discounted Amazon sales of an album like Sufjan, and the well-documented drop-off in sales the following week, when it returns to a normal Amazon price. Still, though, it can’t help but feel like a minor victory of the human spirit that Sufjan, a man whose last full-length was a wordless album dedicated to a dirty highway, charted in the top 10 and above Linkin Park and Bruno Mars (seriously, the dude wrote “Fuck You”).

At the end of the day, a No. 7 debut may seem anticlimactic to some who followed the back and forth. It’s certainly no Arcade Fire surprise No. 1 scenario. But in a sense that numbers game misses the point. This isn’t the Arcade Fire here. We don’t mean to play up Steven’s endearing oddness, so much as we mean to point out that this is a brilliantly gifted but somewhat niche musician making what is widely viewed as his most experimental album. Such a debut on those terms can’t help but feel like a win for both camps. Short of a smidge of bad PR (which I can’t imagine will make much of a dent in the sale giant), Amazon comes away from the whole thing having done pretty well for a week and having yet again proved that they have the power to directly help place hand-selected indie efforts in the Billboard Top 20. Asthmatic Kitty gets to show a strong solidarity with their artists and, even if they aren’t a “numbers” label, gets to feel pretty damn good about a rare huge sales week (relatively).

As mentioned before, the whole situation felt pretty win-win to us. But the one point that stuck with us from Asthmatic Kitty’s stance against Amazon was their belief that “the work that our artists produce is worth more than a cost of a latte.” Sure, this phrasing sets out to prove a pretty direct point. On a certain level, it makes logical sense, though. Amazon’s large, changing selection of heavily discounted mp3 albums can often feel like a sort of overlooked discount bin of the small CD retailers of yesteryear. This might do Amazon a slight disservice, as it’s rare we saw a whole lot of Nick Cave albums mixed in with the Smashmouth and Vertical Horizon tapes we passed over on the regular. And it takes no more than one listen to grant that The Age Of Adz is worth exponentially more lattes than that album with “Walkin’ On the Sun” on it.

First things first, because it has to be said, Sufjan emphatically uses the f-word many times over at the end of the chaotic “I Want To Be Well.” After seeing most all of Seven Swans performed in person a couple of times, hearing Sufjan curse repeatedly for the first time may have actually left a bigger impression on us than the first time we heard our own mom do the same. Really jarring stuff. It makes perfect sense in context in this case. This is the most urgent Sufjan we’ve ever really seen. He’s not whispering lullabies or inspiration or painting us tales of states traveled. Hearing of the health problems he endured while making this album can only feel fitting. He’s shouting at times on Adz, he’s frantic, and even when he seems calm, the beeping of the electronic background much of these tracks provide seem to counteract it.

These contradictions really work on Adz, though, showcasing what feels like a different Sufjan while never forcing him to entirely leave his comfort zone. His older near-frightened soft melodies still show up in between the circus, especially on opener “Futile Devices” and the beginning and end of the title track. The chaos and clunks of the background don’t even feel that foreign from much of his BQE project and the kookier tracks on the state’s projects.

The eight-minute long title track may be the best individual showcase of the impressive world Stevens has created here. The musical intro sounds like a mix of a club basement rap track and an epic movie scene. The latter’s energy is carried throughout the track, making it feel downright huge at times, but as the track nears it’s finish it gives way to a more typical showcase of Steven’s superb vocals and songwriting ability, proving a much more effective vehicle for him as an overall artist than I would have ever thought before.

The phrase that brings Sufjan to f-bomb us over and over is an urgently building I’m not fucking around. In context, it seems to be a rally against the illness he has recently mentioned. It also feels like as good of a reason for why he or his label would be miffed by the whole Amazon concept. While few artists or labels seemed to be taking aim at legal music download outlets before this point, few artists take themselves as musically serious as Sufjan Stevens. As it turns out, that is still a very good thing.

The Tripwire: Sufjan Stevens Once Again Makes a Fine Case for the Album