Sufjan Stevens Ascends from the Chaos of Modern America

"I think at some point, I realized that my problems were no longer personal...and I started to see my problems are universal"
Sufjan Stevens Ascends from the Chaos of Modern America
Photo: Evans Richardson
"I don't have a vision for a live show for this record at all," Sufjan Stevens tells Exclaim! about his plans — or lack thereof — surrounding the release of his eighth studio album, The Ascension.

This is probably for the best, considering that a world-altering infectious disease has turned an activity as simple as attending a concert into a biohazardous event. But the pandemic isn't the sole factor in his decision to stay home; Stevens wrote and recorded his apocalyptic collection of "editorial pop" songs long before the virus made its way across the Pacific. He never planned to bring the record on the road in the first place.

Even if he could tour safely, he knows the collective anxiety we're experiencing in this new era — characterized by democratic collapse, capitalism run amok and the States on the verge of a civil war — puts his artistic profession into a perilous new context.

"The whole idea of going to a show and getting together and being in a room and sharing in the experience — it's about elevation and it's about a collective aesthetic experience and it's about taking yourself out of the dangers of the realities of the world outside," he says. "And you just can't do that right now."

He admits, "I felt like I needed to stay home and work and continue writing [to] develop a more healthy, creative practice and to maybe work on some songs that weren't so heavy."

Heavy as it may be, his new 15-track record — touting one of his longest-ever runtimes — is firmly rooted in a sense of optimism about the future, directly contrasting the seemingly impending apocalypse. It's a dramatic turn for Stevens, whose concept-album profundity (save for 2015's autobiographical Carrie & Lowell) has historically been inspired by more lighthearted topics, like the planets, the Chinese zodiac or the 50 states, to name a few. A self-described "artist of particulars, specificities and the minutia," Sufjan's pivot to examine his part of the whole sprung up from a sense of personal dread about society's political and social regression.

"I think at some point, I realized that my problems were no longer personal, or my personal problems were no longer at the forefront of my mind and my experience. And I started to see my problems are universal," he says.

"It's really not about me. I am just the messenger."

Tapping into that spirit, The Ascension was born. Its lead single, a 12-minute epic titled "America," is a deeply expository song about the tumultuous state of his mother country. It feels like the thesis statement for the album's overarching condemnatory tone. Through its critical lens, the record points to the ways in which we are failing each other. It also suggests we may be able to "ascend" from the darkness, to rebuild and reshape our existence through love and compassion — instead of looking to "institutions and governments and politicians and celebrities to stand for something."

Stevens explains, "The Ascension and the transformation from the physical to the spiritual, for me, is [the] process of sublimation of consciousness. And I kind of wanted to use that process to disassociate and ascend away from myself and the world, the corruption and crisis and chaos around me to make better sense of it. To get out of my head and get out of my mind and get out of my fear.

"I started to ask myself, 'What if our problems aren't natural or actual, but metaphysical?' Or what if, at least, the solution to the problems were better understood on a spiritual level? I think that the songs [on The Ascension] are asking bigger questions, like, why are we here? What is it all for? What is our purpose? What is our function? Are we doing the work that we're called to do? I guess in some ways I'm trying to take into task all the things around me that I started to distress, including myself."

Lyrically pared down, The Ascension assumes the role of a pop album, albeit marked by Stevens's capacity for the experimental. He hides pockets of insight beneath its glassy patterns, club-ready electronic sensibilities and profane colloquialisms. Pop culture references — nods to Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead one-liners — pepper the album's nearly hour-and-a-half runtime. These methods usher in a new model for the artist who is better known for his eloquent, eccentric lyricism and orchestral instrumentation.

"I felt like I needed to embrace the lowest common denominator of language in order to express bigger truths," he says. "[But] there's a lot of Scrabble words in there too."

In conversation from the comfort of his new home in the Catskill Mountains, he describes the record as "high-brow mixed with low-brow." In the rural setting, Sufjan has embraced a new way of living in order to engage this and other new ways of writing, as well as to facilitate meditation on his role within larger systems.

While taking some things seriously and others less so, he makes time to joke around, addressing the absurdity of the internet and the need for love at the end of the world.

The spacious northeast Appalachian property where he lives now offers the luxury of a home studio and arable land. As a result, he has become serious about gardening and expresses an interest in raising chickens and goats. Now that he's removed himself from the urban centre of Brooklyn, he's also thinking of getting a dog. A Siberian Husky, maybe.

"My life now is a lot more rural and more like a farmer's life. I have an ATV and a tractor and a trailer to hook up to it," he laughs, "And I have a chainsaw."

"This morning, the first thing I did was, I had to fertilize my tomatoes and spray the cabbages," he says of his new lifestyle. "Now that there's starting to be a yield, I have to keep up with it [and] go out every day and make sure I'm not missing any of the cucumbers. If something has blight, I have to deal with it. It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun as well. It's given me a lot of hope too. It's helping me get through the day," he says.

Besides sounding like a prepper's paradise, his change of scenery has offered clarity in a time of ceaselessly occurring global crises. "If I feel anxiety about the state of the world, I can just turn off the computer, turn off the internet, and start working on music and just focus on nature," he says. The land he's amassed and his freedom from the hustle have affected his creative process as well.

"I developed a new practice, a new way of working where it's not about making an album, but about developing ideas and giving myself the space to do it because I finally have a studio of my own. It feels like a real privilege."

Understandably, his music is changing shape along with his surroundings. "I think I'm going back to writing folk songs again," he reveals.

"I had a studio in Dumbo, in Brooklyn, for about 10 years. And about four years ago — because of gentrification and all that — I got kicked out and I couldn't find a new space in the city. So I just put everything in storage. I just kinda kept really simple things, like keyboards and drum machines, and I didn't really have any acoustic instruments for a few years. But once I moved up here last year, I got to bring all my guitars and banjos and ukuleles. So I'm kind of excited to get to know them again."

He estimates it will be another five years or so before he releases another album, but The Ascension, in its mammoth proportions, should easily bridge the gap. Its veins and venules are innumerous and immeasurably complex. It could very well take all those years to dissect it sufficiently.

An anthology filled to the brim with postulations about the issues within "society and politics, identity" and within Sufjan too (despite his best efforts to remove himself from the equation), it can be an emotional undertaking to listen to. With the world still in disarray, Stevens admits, "I can only really speak for the mess that I've made for myself."

He says, "There's a lot of work we all need to do to ourselves. Because we're all complicit in this problem. We're all participating in these systems and structures that aren't sustainable and are unhealthy."

In that sentiment, one thing is clear: you have to put your mask on first.

"It's like in a plane crash: you have to follow procedure. And that means taking care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. 'We're all in this together,' they keep saying, but then at the same time, we're so isolated, you know? It's a paradox. I do believe that if you can't help yourself then you can't help others. You can't love yourself if you can't love others."