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Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’: Bossy and Bitchy

Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’: Bossy and Bitchy image

So I did not ask Stevens where the California or Idaho songs are. But I did note that his sprawling new album, The Ascension, out on September 25, might be heard as the final subversion of his early-2000s output. “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he sings on the lead single, “America,” before the knife-flick of a chorus: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” Some listeners have speculated that the 12-minute track is about Stevens breaking up with God, but Stevens explained to me that it’s not a religious song at all. It instead articulates a “crisis of faith about my identity as an American, and about my relationship to our culture, which I think is really diseased right now … It’s overtly a political protest song, specifically about America.”

To the notion that such protest is in tension with his early work, Stevens, 45, said with a laugh, “I have changed. I’ve grown old and world-weary. I’m exhausted. I’m disenchanted. I’m a curmudgeon.” But he insisted that his point of view hadn’t radically shifted. “There’s a lot of criticism on those [early] records; it’s all just hidden behind a facade of joyfulness,” he said. “But I’m inherently a pessimist … For the first time ever, on The Ascension, I’m being honest about what I feel about the world.”

Stevens, in fact, wrote “America” six years ago, during the sessions for Carrie & Lowell, his devastating album about personal family tragedy. He shelved the song because it seemed too bitter. “The election of Donald Duck stirred something in me that made me think I was entitled to this cynicism and mean-spiritedness,” Stevens said. “I had been holding back a lot of resentment towards pop culture and American culture … But when all of the shit hit the fan, I realized, I should say something.”

Stevens’s resentment refracts kaleidoscopically through The Ascension’s 15 songs, which total an hour and 20 minutes of music. The lyrics impressionistically address love, death, and drugs with an overarching call to defy modern society’s materialism, lies, and idol worship. “I’m speaking to you,” Stevens said. “You are the subject of this record. You, the listener.” It’s an intimidating album, and I asked whether he was worried about coming off as didactic or preachy. “I think I’ve earned the right to be didactic and preachy,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and how many songs have I written about my own personal grievances [with] judgment against myself, self-deprecation, and sorrow? I was like, No, I don’t want to write another song about my dead mother. I want to write a song that is casting judgment against the world.”

If Stevens is embracing his inner crank these days, you wouldn’t know it by talking with him. On the phone, he was teasing and loose, and we digressed into conversations about his love of RuPaul’s Drag Race and his fascination with rats. “I fucking admire them,” he said. “They’re like Tonya Harding; they’re survivors.” He became acquainted with rodents when they infested his Brooklyn apartment a few years ago, encouraging him to flee to hotels and Airbnbs for much of the period during which The Ascension was recorded. By the time the album was completed, he’d built a new home in the Catskills, where he now lives. “Thank you, next,” he said of New York City. “I did my time, 20 years. I’m sorry I’m not a lifer.”

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