Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Age of Adz’ (review)

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Sufjan Stevens, “The Age of Adz” (Asthmatic Kitty)

When Sufjan Stevens dismissed his “plan” to spend the remainder of his career making concept albums for all 50 states, more than a few felt betrayed.

Five long years came and went since the folk singer’s breakout smash, “Illinoise,” and various EPs and B-sides were not enough to quell fans’ appetites. Alas, the wait is over, and instead of an Americana postcard or recognizable skyscraper on the cover art, Stevens presents a foreboding alien robot as the welcome mat to this sprawling work that depicts a mental, rather than geographical, state.

“The Age of Adz” zaps the once-minimalist folk singer light years into the future (or, perhaps more accurately, the present) through premeditated tape glitches, dubstep beats and keyboard blips in logarithmic fashion. It’s a far cry from the whispering banjo ballads of “Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State” and the softer moments of “Illinoise,” but it works. At times, Stevens’ schoolboy rasp feels almost taunting, particularly on the epic “I Want to be Well,” and his acoustic fingerpicking and trademark alto horns can still be heard in the belly of the technological beast that powers up when you hit play.

The beauty of this record lies in its use of tension and release, of the balance between bombardment and understatement. These songs are long, really long — album closer “Impossible Soul” runs just over 25 minutes — but they are delicate, intensely crafted compositions which are often broken into classically structured movements.

On the album’s title track, Stevens subtly enunciates the word “Adz” as “Oz,” and his remaining wizadry is a warning for listeners to not be distracted amid the chaos of 21st-century technological life. If “Michigan” and “Illinoise” were folk operas in black and white, “The Age of Adz” shows Stevens wide awake in a world of color, far from Kansas