REVIEW: Indie darling Sufjan Stevens explores faith with ‘The Ascension.'

The album evokes Christian themes without preaching to the listener.

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The album art for Sufjan Stevens’ new album, “The Ascension,” evokes a memory of rainbow light filtering through stained glass church windows. The abstract shapes even seem to form a cross in the center — fitting, because on “The Ascension,” he takes us to church.

Stevens has been the darling of the indie-folk crowd for more than 20 years since the release of his first album, “A Sun Came,” in 1999. Notably, he doesn’t shy away from exploring his Christian faith in his work. But this new album, released Sept. 25, feels like a culmination, a deeper dive into the spiritual life of the now-45-year-old musician.

“I will bring you life/A new communion,” croons Stevens on the album’s hypnotic second track, “Run Away With Me.” This line perfectly encapsulates the feelings he projects onto the listener throughout “The Ascension.” We’re forced to question the intersection of romantic love and love for higher beings, and whether those two forms of love should intersect at all.

Stevens sings for a lover, for God, for the church and for himself, seemingly not for the listener at all. This marks a shift away from his two most notable albums: 2005’s “Illinois” is an homage to the state itself, and the 2015 project “Carrie & Lowell” explores grief in tandem with his relationship to his mother and stepfather. But “The Ascension” is a uniquely independent journey.

The first four songs are our baptism into the album, so to speak, with electronic soundscapes and Stevens’ ethereal high vocals drifting over the top. On the third song, “Video Game,” he sings, “I wanna be my own redeemer.” It’s almost angelic, as if Stevens himself is taking on the role of God that he hearkens back to throughout the album.

Sufjan Stevens’ voice is tuneful and beautiful, but he rarely sings with true conviction and power, because it’s not what he’s cut out for. Instead, his strength lies in the composition of each track. He masterfully layers simple beats, airy vocal backing and melodic instrumentals to create something wholly different, more than the sum of its parts. Rather than an album, “The Ascension” is more of a journey through modern hymns, thoughts on God and reflections on religion as a whole. Regardless of your faith, Stevens brings you on that journey with him.

As the album progresses, the novelty of the formulaic layered song structure wears off a bit, and the 80-minute-long magnum opus slows down. It’s worth noting, however, that Stevens wholly switches genres for this project. “The Ascension” never returns to the familiar folksy warmth of tracks like “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out to Get Us” or “Casimir Pulaski Day” from the ode to Americana that is “Illinois.” Instead, it takes on an electropop feel, and is less melodic than the Sufjan Stevens music we’re used to.

The title track of the album is more choral and rich than the 13 songs prior, creating interest through the many different layers of Stevens’ voice. But it gives way to the formidable 12-minute single that closes out “The Ascension,” “America.” In a dazed, mesmerizing tone, Stevens repeats “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” over and over until the song closes in a hollow echo of a chord. It’s clear in this line that his faith is still in question, that he still has some unresolved anger toward the God for whom he sings.

“The Ascension” is not better than the unfiltered sorrow of “Carrie and Lowell” or the naive joy and curiosity of “Illinois,” but it is certainly different in that Stevens no longer needs to play to his audience. At 45, he longs for a relationship with God rather than the small but mighty fandom that his previous work brought him. It may not seem particularly cool to be religious in the modern world of music, but Stevens does it with grace and independence.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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