The Age of Adz is bookended by the sort of softly plucked, softly sung nu folk with which Stevens made his name. On albums such as Seven Swans, Stevens established himself as the cranky old uncle of twisted folk. If other acts perfected one or other facet of Stevens’s music, his increasingly expansive sound – hubristically symbolised by his now abandoned pledge to record one album for all fifty of the United States – remained a fount for much of what was inventive in their particular corner of modern American music.
Stevens’s new album seems to meet the challenges of having become perhaps more cited than listened to by citing the citations – and outdoing them. Even the trick of starting an album in fact marked by its departures from Illinoise or The Avalanche with a nod to the past comes straight from Iron & Wine’s 2007 The Shepherd’s Dog; it gives way to a second track comprised of the squelches and beeps of a science fictional battle, like At War With the Mystics but with melodies; and before long, he’s also tipped his hat towards Of Montreal (‘Get Real Get Right’), Owen Pallett (‘Now That I’m Older”) and even The National (‘I Walked’).
These references are scrawled over until barely legible, of course: though counter-intuitively so, this is very much a Sufjan Stevens LP, with gnomic, ethereal vocals and prodigious instrumentation. Even the choice of Royal Robertson as the album’s twisted muse is a typical Stevens gambit, imposing a fractured unity on a splintered project. The final 25-minute long track, ‘Impossible Soul’, is the king of sprawling portentousness that only Stevens can do without it becoming cloying. That could go for the record as a whole, in fact: The Age of Adz is that rare thing, a work both coherent and conflicted. Stevens has a habit of setting standards.