In 1996, I received a press release from EMI Records that I kept. I held onto it because it was printed on stark black cardboard with silver lettering and was very, very intriguing. It promised genre-smashing music unlike anything I’d ever heard.
Of course, that press release was for Babylon Zoo: the epitome of disappointing one-hit-wonders. I’ve waited ever since for the mythical music I’d been expecting.
Like most received wisdom, the one about the devil having all the best tunes is exaggerated. It is, however, fair to say that once you leave the gospel music spectrum aside, most songs about God are quite awful. The Age of Adz – a collection of songs about faith and love – is fun on a biblical scale.
It has the same unashamed bombast as early VAST, but is even more eclectic and overblown. It’s electro-pop informed by minimalist academics, infused with the twinkling orchestral flourishes of late-19th century fantasy classical. It has the wall-of-sound brass of Motown and playful, intricate percussion. It’s the most easy-listening sort of brain-meltingly ambitious music that I’ve heard.
This album opener reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel – it’s a low-key acoustic ballad with gentle piano.
Too Much kicks off with the sort of drum break that Nine Inch Nails specialise in, or perhaps Aphex Twin, but instrumentally it’s closer to Radiohead’s later experimental-electro stuff. About halfway in, dreamy strings warm things up, with analogue synths bubbling through. The build-ups and break-downs are expertly judged – it’s like UNKLE after watching Fantasia.
The Age of Adz
Oh, this is huge! It starts off as some sort of 70s prog-glam take on Stravinsky before becoming quite a pared-down, sing-along anthem that makes me think of what Beck would sound like if Beck was anything like Beck ought to sound like.
This isn’t as immediate, whack-you-over-the-head-with-its-awesomeness as the other tracks. It’s just a well-written song, proving that Sufjan Stevens knows how to pull it back when he needs to.
Now That I’m Older
This is aiming for those old 1950s dreamy film soundtrack sounds with the “angelic” backing vocals, but it comes over like some sappy crap by Coldplay and is a jarring weak point on the album.
Get Real Get Right
Bouncing straight back with the strongest track – a simply stunning song – the live YouTube clip doesn’t do it justice. It’s Living In The Future music – the sort that Bill & Ted’s Wyld Stallyns ended up playing, after they got better. Every time the song ends, I want to hear it again.
I must quote Alexis Petridis on this, since his review was beautiful:
Get Real Get Right features military drums, seasick, discordant electronics, massed backing vocals and a lyric in which snake-skinned aliens descend from the skies, and Stevens locks himself in the toilet before erupting in religious fervour: “I must do the right thing! Get right with the Lord!” On paper, it looks a little abandon-hope-all-who-enter-here, but the reality is rather different … [it] starts to resemble that bit in Brasseye when David Amess MP demonstrated what music sounded like under the influence of the made-up drug cake.
Much as I laughed at that, I don’t think it’s too dense and overblown at all. Not even slightly.
All For Myself
See, this is why the album only got 4/5 reviews, even though it ended up on most “albums of the year” lists. Too many weak, meandering, sappy ballads like these. It’s pure self-indulgence, and it lets the album down.
The album’s really starting to flag now, and that’s downright frustrating after so many eye-wateringly great tracks. I absolutely agree with the reviews that called it disjointed, inconsistent and patchy.
I Want To Be Well
[Caution: Explicit lyrics]
And now we’re back on track with a flute-filled stop-start math-pop (is there such a thing?) jaunty little thing. It’s a reference to the debilitating illness Stevens recently suffered, but the song provokes a smile nonetheless.
This is one of the rare examples where the slow ballad actually works. I think it’s because the backing music is complicated and interesting enough to be able to carry the gentle Thom Yorke impression of the vocals. (There’s even a frankly ill-advised autotune bit – but even that sounds better than it ought to.) The music’s got bite and body to it – even an offbeat, distorted guitar solo. At one point it’s a sort of dissonant disco funk with a cheery motivational chorus.
Oh, and the song is 25 minutes long. Just thought I’d mention that.
Twenty five minutes! That’s a whole song longer than Pink Floyd’s Echoes.
Astonishingly, it remains engaging and enjoyable all the way through. It’s a microcosm of the album itself: what on paper would seem like a chore turns out to be a cracking, ear-friendly listen. It’s flawed, certainly, but it’s still a true masterpiece.
A few decades ago, people had a rough idea of what the music of the future would sound like. They also thought that the world would be ending any day soon.
The Age of Adz sounds like both happening at the same time.