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Sufjan's electro-charged

Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
(Asthmatic Kitty)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Jan. 7, 2011
Sufjan Stevens

Review by Tony Bonyata

Back in 2003, after the release of his Michigan full-length album, indie-musician Sufjan Stevens announced that he'd be undertaking his Fifty States Project, stating that he'd be writing and recording an album for each of the 50 states. Even though he did follow it up two years later with his sprawling masterpiece Illinois (touching on regional themes such as Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exposition, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Casimir Pulaski, the Chicago Cubs, etc.) no one really ever thought he'd go through with the monumental task of tackling all 50 states (himself included, as he admitted to The Guardian newspaper last year that it was little more than "a promotional gimmick").

On Stevens' latest album The Age of Adz - his first song-based effort in five years - the Detroit native channels the experimental idealism of his Fifty States Project into a single disc. It's a complex, confounding and, ultimately, rewarding effort where Stevens pushes his own boundaries further - melding heavy electronics and orchestration into his own infectious brand of indie-folk. Despite that the opening track "Futile Devices" is ripe with an introspective folk approach (even at times sounding slightly reminiscent to early Peter Gabriel-era Genesis) things turn more robotic and synthetic from here on out. Tracks such as "Too Much," "I Walked" and "I Want To Be Well" all bubble, gurgle and percolate with cold electro beats and blips, even though effervescent strings and woodwinds, as well as Sufjan's warm vocal delivery manage to add a welcome human touch. Of course, too much of a good thing can also go too far, as proved on the epic 25 minute closing number "Impossible Soul." Despite the song starting out as a handsome indie-folk-pop composition, things turn south when Sufjan channels his voice through the popular and hideously annoying Auto-Tune phase vocoder. On the surface, it's like nails on chalkboard, yet I believe this was included (thankfully at the album's end) with a wink-and-a-nudge, or possibly merely to confuse or shake-up his audience.

Whatever the reason, Sufjan has produced yet another often compelling album that continues to confound… which, coincidentally, is exactly what his fans have come to expect from him. So much for the element of surprise.

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