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The unbearable lightness of being Sufjan Stevens
On his eighth studio album The Ascension, he aims to make Starbucks pop for the metaphysically anguished.
The unbearable lightness of being Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens prefers to stay off Instagram, but when his label opened an account for him early last year , his first two posts cited the dogmatic wisdom of Ariana Grande: “thank u, next.” It was around the same time that he was moving out of Brooklyn, having built a studio space out in the Catskills with the capacity to store the arsenal of gear he’s accumulated over the years. “I was in the city for like 20 years. I never considered myself a lifer, so I had to get out at some point,” he says. “At some point with New York, you realize there's diminishing returns. The resources aren't really adding up to the distractions and all the compromises in daily life, and I just kind of got sick of it at a certain point.”

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That decisive act of leaving what no longer suits you — “taking out the limb that causes you to stumble,” as he puts it — is the crux of his eighth studio album, The Ascension, out today via his own label, Asthmatic Kitty. “I needed to extract myself from the chaos of the world that I've created and from the dysfunction that I've constructed and from all the inequities and diseases and injustices that I've been complicit in. I needed to take myself out of the noise in order to cleanse myself of myself.“

On The Ascension, he attempts to do so by exploiting the tropes of modern pop. That process started with “America,” a feverish 12-minute epic that marches itself from funeral procession to near-psychedelic pomp. It was written in the throes of making his last album, 2015’s Carrie and Lowell. The next song that stuck was “Video Games,” a bubbly and flippant counter to the heaviness presented on that record. “I had these two polarizing dispositions — one being heavy and sustained and full of dread, and the other being kind of poppy and bitchy and a little bit glib,” he says. “Once I wrote those songs, I felt like this record needed to fill everything else in between.”

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Rather than pursuing what he needed to hear next, Stevens opted to shift the focus to the listener. “I was considering a vacant, nameless, faceless listener that is just, like, getting coffee at Starbucks,” he reasons. “Every song I was working on I would think to myself, ‘What is this communicating to the lowest common denominator? What does this prove? Does it feel believable? Is it fun? Is it catchy? Is it working, almost on a commercial level?’ At least as much as I'm capable of doing.”

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Even at its most accessible, The Ascension remains a maximalist endeavor. Whether vacillating toward playful or weary, each moment feels saturated to its fullest. Abandoning some of the allegorical mystique that previously characterized his lyrics gives way to a slew of plainspoken mandates: tell him you love him, make him an offer he cannot refuse, take him into all of your lifetime, give him some sugar. “At the risk of sounding like a Confucian, I saw your body and I saw what I liked,” he sings on “Landslide.” “Let’s keep it simple, give me absolution.” The ascension he illustrates is not one without consummation, and benzos, and at least one nod to Depeche Mode. “If you're going to generalize, all pop music is about sex in some way,” he says. “So many of the songs are like booty calls, right?”

He extends that same candor to himself as well, especially as the album begins its slow-motion tumble upward toward hallucinatory atonement. On the shatteringly beautiful title track, he confronts his legacy: “It frightens me, the dreams that I possess, to think I was a believer when I was just angry and depressed.” For nearly two decades, Stevens has been a beacon of sincerity, delivering Midwest fantasia through veiled musings on desire, loss, and the elasticity of faith. Was he being too idealistic? Could any of his intentions have been flawed? These are possibilities that he can’t ignore any longer.

“We have a tendency to mythologize our identity based on the past, and the past is actually really troubling,” he says. “Accountability needs to be taken and enormous changes need to happen. But I think it needs to happen from the inside out.”

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There's definitely some levity to the idea of an ascension, but it also could imply something strenuous, like it requires some heavy lifting. What does the word mean to you?

I guess there is some kind of effort in trying to ascend all the bullshit and chaos of our world. That takes an incredible amount of work and discipline and discretion, but there's also like a lighter side to it. The ascension, spiritually speaking and biblically speaking, is just a human form being taken up into the heavens. It all just happens, almost miraculously. I feel like the ascension is transforming the physical to the spiritual.

I started to think, "What if our problems weren't real or actual but metaphysical?” Almost like stepping back and instead of trying to fix things concretely, start to fix things more spiritually, and maybe even existentially. Why am I here? What is this all for? What's my purpose? What's my calling? It's a personal experience and it's calling on me to account for myself.

Listening to this album, the act of ascending is constantly faced with the temptation of hedonism.

There is a lot of conflict between the sacred and profane going on on this record. I'm constantly aware that I'm in this world, but not of this world, and it creates a lot of strain. When we're in a time of crisis, we tend to cling to the physical things around us, and want them to give us solace and meaning and purpose. When certain rights and freedoms and entitlements and privileges are taken away from us, we start to feel threatened. We turn into crisis mode, fight or flight. For me, it's like these songs are working through all of that terror. It is a real kind of confrontation between the physical and the spiritual and feeling something in a profound, phenomenal way and also wanting to release myself of that feeling and sort of exercise the demon of that experience.

Was the whole album made upstate?

A lot of the ideas started when I was still in the city. I was working on a bunch of other stuff at the time, but I'd lost my studio in Dumbo and had to put everything in storage. I just grabbed a few things that I could fit in my room and I rented some studio spaces every once in a while, but I was kind of working remote for longer than I probably should have. I didn't really have access to everything. I think that's one of the reasons why I just decided to kind of stick with a reduced instrumentation. It was easier at the time. I didn't really have a place to work.

Once I moved up here and got to move into my studio, I started back on it last fall. it was a mess and it was 40 songs. In the next four months, I finished it, and by December I had a record. That's the feverish sort of moment that happened because all the songs were like all over the place and weren't anywhere done. They were just drums, beats. Then it all kind of came together in the last four months.

The unbearable lightness of being Sufjan Stevens Evans Richardson

This is a pop album. You've made pop music throughout your career, but I feel like on this record it's more of an embrace of the term rather than a stylistic shift. I'm curious with regards to pop music, what were you taking into consideration on this record?

I was definitely less focused on myself and my person, my story, my narrative. I got rid of all the idioms of narrative folk songwriting. I wanted things to feel more universal and more generic, in a way. I embraced the use of cliches and catchphrases and idioms and colloquialisms. All that stuff started to like become the impetus for the songs, the meanings behind the songs. I kind of wanted to speak to the lowest common denominator. I wanted the songs to keep moving and be simple on the surface and to feel accessible in a way, as much as I'm able to do it because like even at my most poppiest, I'm a far cry from what's being played on the radio right now. That was all really, really intentional.

I don't feel like I'm generally participating in the pop vernacular too much — I feel like I'm kind of outside of that practice, so it felt really exciting to embrace it and make it the central part of the characteristic in terms of the lyric writing. I've been making records for so long and I've been producing so much work and writing so much original music. After a while I got exhausted by sort of my habits and tropes. I felt like I needed to get out of myself.

I also gave myself a license to not have any new ideas. Sometimes I feel like you just need to appropriate an old idea or preexisting one and make it your own. The songwriting was a process of appropriating cliches and commands and catchphrases and building them into a larger, deeper, more meaningful, more philosophical conversation about our world and crisis and politics and love. All that stuff is there, and obviously it's my point of view and my imprint and authorship is all over this because I did everything, but in spite of all that, I wanted to take myself out of it narratively and think more about the listener, the consumer.

As a listener yourself, who's excited you lately?

I love the new Moses Sumney album. It's really, really beautiful and deep. I’ve also been enjoying the Hatchie record, she’s such a great songwriter. But I haven't been listening to that much new music. I've been listening to a lot of older stuff recently. I'm a little out of it.

You’ve cited Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 as an influence on this record — what is it about that album, in particular?

I think it's probably because it's one of the first big pop records that I got attached to in the eighties and entered my consciousness where I was finally starting to develop my own taste in pop music. It's been there since I was like 10 or 12 years old. I love that it has a mix of like explicitly political songs and then these really fun love songs. Then it's sort of interjecting all this communication about the state of the world during the eighties. It's always fun though. It never loses that original intent.

The whole Minneapolis scene at the time was really exciting, most of all because of Prince. I really was fascinated with the technology they were using and the sounds, the synth sounds, the drum sounds, the aesthetics and the textures. It's a little bit cold and crisp, but it's still really beautiful and groovy and sensual. The beats [on this record] are all made on a Dave Smith Tempest, which is a collaboration he did with Roger Linn. He made this drum machine called the LinnDrum, and that's all over those Prince records from the eighties, and I think it's used a lot also on Rhythm Nation. The drum machine that I’m using, it's nothing like the original Linn, but it has some samples in there. I think I was just kind of embracing the technology that I was using.

To you, what are the makings of a solid pop song?

The element of surprise is really important to me. So much of pop music is following a formula now probably because there's an algorithm that motivates the potential popularity of it. I also like the hierarchy of information. On one level, it's really just a fun song. On another level, it's like there's a deeper meaning. Then on another level, there's incredible production and performances. When there's a duplicity or even a multiplicity to its meanings, that's exciting to me. That's why I think Prince is so exciting because he's clearly an entertainer and he knows how to show up for work and how to write a great hit, but then he subverts it and he sneaks in all kinds of little shifts and changes and transitions. You're never quite sure if he's like singing about sex or singing about God or religion.

I guess you could sort of step back from the content and the aesthetic, and just think of it in terms of commodity. Maybe how it could be best described is its intentions. It's intended for a popular audience. For me, if it sounds plastic, it's probably pop. If it sounds fake, it's probably pop. Under that umbrella, you can't really put hip-hop there because there's nothing more real than hip-hop.

Do you feel like you plasticized any of the songs on this record?

Like did I use Auto-Tune? No. That's one cup of Kool-Aid I probably won't drink. I did use Melodyne. I wanted my vocals to sound pristine and clear and beautiful and as good as possible. I'm not a great singer. I don't have incredible chops, but I wanted the voice to be at the center of everything. I think that's another characteristic of pop. It's like the vocals are mixed higher and they're cleaner and clearer. There's motifs and there's got to be catchy choruses and all that stuff. That's pop music.

Everything on this record is those three synthesizers. If you hear vocals, it's not real. It's samples. They're all real samples, but I didn't use any real strings. All the voices are all from this Prophet X. It's actually not that cool, but at least I don't have to pay royalties to anybody.

I was recently listening to an interview with your pal [director] Luca Guadagnino and [screenwriter] David Kajganich, and they were talking at length about America’s resistance to guilt or shame, which goes hand-in-hand with its fixation of nostalgia, an inherently fascist concept.

I think what I'm asking people to do is to question the bullshit that they've been fed, and also to kind of burn it down and to move on and allow for space for that to happen. Let go of all these mythologies of America. It's kind of how I feel about it. I don't know. The apparent greatness of America is really scary in a lot of ways. Obviously, we have a tendency to mythologize our identity based on the past, and the past is actually really troubling. I think there's a constant disconnect between the propaganda that we're being fed, and the harsh reality of our contemporary state of being an American. We don't know how to deal with that. It's like we're going to be waving the flag as it's all burning. Accountability needs to be taken and enormous changes need to happen. But I think it needs to happen from the inside out.

The title track, “The Ascension,” ends in this big existential chorus of “what now”s, and I wanted to ricochet that question back your way. What now?

I can’t speak for the world. For myself, I do think that I want to start really questioning all the preexisting conditions of myself and the scrutinizing behaviors that I've had that seem to define who I am and my personality. Are these helpful? Are these useful? Do I really need to be like this? You’ve gotta do a full manifest of who you are and what you have, and then start to scrutinize all the little things and break it down to build it up again. I think that's important. We have the time now to do this because we're all in somewhat of a standstill. I think this is the time to really allow yourself to question everything. Is it working? And if it's not, then take it out. Take out the limb that causes you to stumble.

The unbearable lightness of being Sufjan Stevens