Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

A record of existential exhaustion...

Goodbye to all that, goes the Joan Didion essay about endings. Sufjan Stevens nods to it here, with a song named in its honour, chronicling his own escape from New York.

She wrote it in a year of spiritual crisis, a “total withdrawal from all the dysfunctions and delusions of our present human condition”. It fits here too with this record of existential exhaustion, for the gods are throwing some truly apocalyptic material at us at the minute. Stevens surveys this ravaged landscape through a spiritual lens – invoking the language and symbols of faith, even when he sounds like a man who hasn’t much left.

Recorded alone on his computer before lockdown, free of arrangements and live instrumentation, it’s shaped by a drum machine and a couple of synths. A secular hymn-book of sin and salvation; belief stretched to elastic extent; of bargaining with your god, whatever he is.

‘Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse’ declares its “lost patience”, scanning for transactions and seedy distractions. The subdued seduction of ‘Run Away With Me’, seeks escape with a “sweet, fallen fantasy” while ‘‘Sugar’ has its eye on a more instant kind of life-line. But by the time ‘I Want To Die Happy’ rolls around, the party’s over – its one-line mantra warped and unable to convince itself of its possibility.

There’s a stunning candour to the lyrics, though it gets a little stodgy in the mid-section and, at 80+ minutes, is a little more verbiage than the typical album. Yet we’re dealing with an untypical songwriter, and the last two tracks are among the best he’s ever written.

A spiritual cross-examination, ‘The Ascension’ sees Stevens turn out his struggles of faith, false prophets and the burden of the believer. Elevation of consciousness comes from freeing the self: “I shouldn’t have looked for revelation. I should have resigned myself to this…to know the truth at last /That everything comes from consummation/ And everything comes with consequence.”

Though ‘Ascension’ swoops to heaven’s heights, ‘America’ takes us deep into hell. Early Sufjan was once so entranced by his country, he threatened to write an album for every state. That this dead-eyed state of the nation came from him could crack your heart in two. Twelve minutes of dystopian dread, he mourns the land he’s lost (“I have loved you, like a dream/ I have worshipped, I believed”) while a six-minute outro of electronic explosions sound the future’s cold blank page. Some feelings are too big to put into words.

Define the future, Sufjan urges in his Lamentations. We must. In 2020, something’s definitely on the funeral pyre. What will we build when it’s burned? Let these secular psalms soundtrack all your crises till then.


Words: Marianne Gallagher

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