Let’s get started with a brief exercise. Imagine, if you will, that you are Sufjan Stevens. Imagine that you’ve crafted an album that is universally praised as being sophisticated and heartfelt, the new standard against which music of its kind will be measured for quite some time. Now imagine you follow that with a handful of not-exactly-albums, all cut from the same cloth as your first giant, monstrous succes.
What next? When you produce something astonishingly unique and universally praised, where there doesn’t seem to be much more room to go “up,” where do you go? Where do you go from the zenith of the form?
Ok, our imagination exercise is over. How did you do? Did you escape without becoming lost in a tunnel of existential exploration, without breaking apart the very bedrock of your creative spirit and reforming from the ground up?
Yeah, neither did Sufjan Stevens.
In the wake of Illinois, Stevens had developed a signature, universally praised sound that was really enjoyable, and he could have easily hovered around that same area and made a decent career for himself. Indeed, to a certain extent, 2009’s The BQE was mostly content to be a similarly orchestral affair, complete with Stevens’s ever-present flute fascination and token nods to something a bit more spirited and surprising (a few fuzzy guitars and noisy experiments). The All Delighted People EP took a similar tack, organized around an Illinois outtake that didn’t exactly push boundaries. All told, neither The BQE nor the All Delighted People EP were much of a departure.
But then: The Age of Adz, a strange, fractured electronic Bizarro-Sufjan, came out of nowhere. And I mean that in a few different ways; first of all, it wasn’t backed by the usual roll-out for new albums, instead getting announced and released within a month of each other. But it also marked a departure for Stevens as an artist, showing him experimenting with new sounds that he’d left relatively untouched before.
Most notable is “Impossible Soul,” which is a mess on paper but a masterpiece upon execution. It’s over 25 minutes long, and it’s divided into at least 5 easily separable sections that all comment on life and love in different ways. It features some of Stevens’s reliable old tricks of arrangement and instrumentation, but it also brings in a huge new kit-bag of digital sounds and cut-up techniques.
And not only musically, but also lyrically, the song is something of a masterclass in what Sufjan does and is right now. It feels massively more personal than a lot of his previous work. Stevens is a storyteller, and on Illinois, for instance, he told stories of famous people and characters inhabiting the world of his album. On “Impossible Soul” (as well as elsewhere on Adz, especially “Vesuvius”), Stevens finally tackles himself and the way he envisions the challenges and exultations of love.
He’s also experimenting with lyrical styles here, not just content. The song hovers everywhere from the baroque and meandering meanings of Keats (“Instead of the love, lived tired and lost, have you left it at last / Where it floundered its death with the language of ghosts?”) to the directness of Coldplay (“Seems I got it wrong, I was chasing after something that was gone / To the black of night, now I know it’s not what I wanted at all”).
The whole thing, both moment by moment and piece by piece, feels fractured. From moment to moment, it’s a jumble of disparate sounds and burbling electronics that really shouldn’t add up to anything. And piece by piece, it could just crumble into a pile of semi-explored ideas. But the solid foundation and framework of classically arranged Sufjan Stevens material girds all of the stuttering samples and the stylistic detours together.
So given the song’s various twists, turns, fractures, muddles, and meanderings, I thought I’d run through the song and talk about some of the things that make it not just a more experimental Sufjan Stevens song, but an honest-to-god masterpiece. (You’ll have to forgive the length of this post; the song is 5 times the length of most of other songs in this series, so there’s a lot to say.)
First there’s the insistent, metered first section, which features a stuttering and slightly blistering guitar solo, a far cry from the tentative guitar experimentations on The Avalanche. The section seems to chronicle one specific relationship, between two people that maybe don’t know what they want but still expect these unknown things from each other.
Then there’s the second section, what I call the “Don’t Be Distracted” section, featuring more-than-competent guest vocals from Shara Worden. It’s like the existential unwinding after the break-up, where Stevens starts to really try to figure out what he expects from life and from love.
Then there’s the “Stupid Man” section, featuring the much-feared autotune. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that they dislike Adz because they can’t handle “Sufjan with autotune.” Not only is this an unsophisticated complaint, it also couldn’t be farther from my thoughts on the auto-tune section. It starts with repeating cut-up vocal samples that create a rythmic current, and I can’t help the chills when the auto-tuned vocal improvisations drift in and build to the earnest, almost pleading tone of a man unmoored in his own history: “All I want was safe / It wasn’t safe to speak at all.” I shudder just thinking about it.
Suddenly, there’s a turning point into the cheery, encouraging second-to-last-section, the most sustainedly lyrically direct section of the piece. It’s like responding psych-up music for the existential morasses of the preceding half of the song, where Stevens is standing in front of his mirror and coaxing out the eventual ability to put on an optimistic face and MAKE IT HAPPEN. It even features a fun robot-sounding voice in the ebb and flow of its unendingly encouraging back-and-forth.
Then the genius final touch: from the “boy, we can do much more together” of the pep-rally section to the “boy, we made such a mess together” of the acoustic, stripped back reality of the fade-out. It’s Lennon’s “couldn’t get much worse” to McCartney’s “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better,” the push and pull of the crushing and the uplifting, the everlasting love and the fleeting pleasure of life. “Impossible Soul” is about nothing less than the experience of being alive and loving, a truly far-reaching, expansive piece of musical art, never content to rest in one place long enough to let the ideas get stale.
I don’t know that I’ve added much to the discussion that this song has already prompted with my near-minute-by-minute analysis of this little mini-masterpiece, but I think it’s worth it. The song invites close inspection, and its merits lie in its ability to reward that kind of scrutiny. This song truly is brimming with fascinating ideas, and even if Stevens doesn’t spend a ton of time on each idea, they all suggest unexplored depths. The real draw of this song is that, on every listen, those depths reveal themselves just a little more, and they are certainly worth exploring.