Sufjan Stevens’s conceptual obsessions continue on his long-awaited sixth release, The Age of Adz, a trippy, orchestrated journey that is, in two words, beautifully neurotic. The marrying of vague narratives (this time based on the colorful, manic art of Royal Robertson) with symphonic arrangements is nothing new for Stevens; what sets the album apart is the ease in which the singer-songwriter deftly switches from the playful, organic instrumentation of The BQE to electronic mystique. From its half-spoken vocals to the purposeful crawl of its buzzing underbelly, The Age of Adz sounds like Stevens’s march into the musical domain of his fellow Brooklynites, particularly TV on the Radio’s Dear Science and St. Vincent’s Actor.
What makes The Age of Adz an exception rather than some blatant hat-tip to those artists is Stevens’s quirky trademarks. Ferociously ambitious and complex arrangements are everywhere, and rather than just laying plainly, synths and programming are meant to emulate symphonic counterparts like banjos, strings, and xylophones. The results are carnivalesque yet graceful: the eight-minute title track never drags, but throws its weight around with glee, exploding out of the gate in a rumble before simplifying beautifully at its conclusion; the thick “Vesuvius” is a slice of ‘60s California funneled through an Earth-worshipping, baroque-flavored nightmare, a kind of indie reworking of the psychedelic folk prevalent in Ralph Bakshi’s campy 1977 take on The Hobbit.
Still, for all of Stevens’s obvious fascination with layering, The Age of Adz is deceptively simple, eschewing traditional arrangement and percussion more often than not for swells, ripples, and other well-placed noise. The minstrel harmony of “All for Myself” is punctuated by wave crashes and the clipped patter of keyboards, while “Now That I’m Older” brilliantly evokes Wizard of Oz-like imagery with angelic choruses, backward reverb, and Stevens’s own strained warble. As with the album as a whole, both songs are deliberate in alternating between delicately handled moodiness, humor, and the surreal. Very much like Robertson’s art, The Age of Adz is the celebration of delusional fantasy, with every subject, medium, and color chosen purposefully, and the wonderful eccentricities of its creator brought to life with every lush stroke.