Sufjan Stevens is an irresistible enigma. The multi-instrumentalist has the songwriting strength and appeal of a stripped-down folk pop master but also the sonic versatility to record electronic epics. This combination helps him craft technologically impressive music that still retains an organic feel. The creator of two U.S. state-themed concept albums knows that an album is an experience. The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty) would be best enjoyed in its entirety on vinyl with the phone unplugged.
"Futile Devices" begins the record with sweet melodic flair and warm sentimentality.
Then "Too Much" throws in computer beats, synth and various electronic buzzes, hisses and whirs--a complicated delight that you'll be pleased to have rattling in your head after it ends.
When the title track begins, it sounds like a fantasy-adventure film score playing inside a factory of steam-powered equipment--a factory with some top-notch acoustics. It continues in a start-stop dynamic, alternately leaving the vocals by themselves and escalating to dizzying crescendos.
The layered, technical sound creates some magnificent moments but the grandiosity becomes too much. Sufjan hits the sweet spot for the first part of "Impossible Soul," but then stacks so many sounds, effects and singers on top of each other that it begins to sound like the music editing computer threw up all over the 25-minute song about halfway through. The computerized vocal effects begin to feel unnecessary, and by the end, we've heard the refrain, "Boy, we can do much more together" much more than we needed to.
And spellbinding as the music is, this becomes an issue on several songs, including the title track. Stevens finds the perfect balance, then oversteps it, proving that knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing how to start. However, his dulcet voice and earnest songwriting craft keep us with him for the album's meandering entirety.