How Sufjan Stevens made an upbeat album about the 'crisis of humanity'
After Sufjan Stevens released 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, his mournful masterpiece about his mother’s death, he decided his next album would be a lot more fun. Well, at least as much fun as a record about global anxieties and the tragic nature of human existence can be.
“I wanted to sound upbeat, even though I think a lot of the subject matter is challenging,” the 45-year-old singer-songwriter admits with a laugh.
The result is The Ascension (out Sept. 25), a glossy, 15-track album that marries programmed drumbeats and distorted synthesizers with introspective musings on how to better yourself when the world seems to be crumbling around you. Although Stevens technically finished the record in December 2019, the project feels disarmingly suited for the chaos of 2020, with its worries over technology, American politics, and what the future might hold for the human race.
In some ways, The Ascension feels like Trademark Sufjan, with the sort of eccentricity and introspection that made him an indie icon in the early 2000s. His first seven solo albums oscillated between stripped-down acoustic folk (like 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois), lush electronic arrangements (2010’s The Age of Adz), and even kitschy Christmas music, cementing his status as one of the scene’s most unpredictable and beloved songwriters.
The Ascension boasts many of his familiar hallmarks: As always, he packs his lyrics with both personal admissions and cultural references, citing everything from the myth of Gilgamesh to Star Wars. He borrowed one refrain, "Come on, baby, gimme some sugar," from Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness: "I'm like, what if that meant I need some goodness in my life because there's just so much garbage in our society right now?" he says. "What if that phrase actually meant: I just need some sweetness and beauty and integrity without the cacophony of the world around me?" There are also plenty of familiar biblical allusions, singing, “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus” on “Video Game” and comparing himself to “a Judas in heat” in lead single “America.”
But The Ascension is somewhat of a sonic departure for the mercurial Stevens. Even before he settled on the subject matter, he knew he wanted to experiment with drum machines and other electronic elements. For the album’s more romantic songs, he took inspiration from pop icons like Sade and George Michael. Janet Jackson’s 1989 classic Rhythm Nation was an influence, too, in how it unites pop production with politics. “I loved being in that environment because it just felt really good to get rid of all the folk instruments,” he says.
He found the sound that would eventually become The Ascension in "America," a track he originally wrote in 2014 as one of the 40-plus tracks he worked on during Carrie & Lowell. Stevens describes the original version as "like a weirdo folk song," but its confrontational, political lyrics didn't quite mesh with that album's more personal tone. But he kept returning to it, especially as, he says, "the political climate started to change in America." (Stevens has written a number of outspoken political blog posts in recent years, publishing one in The Washington Post about "the heresy of declaring the United States a 'Christian nation.'") He re-recorded "America" as "a beat-driven song, almost like a dirge," and used that as the blueprint for The Ascension's poppy-but-dark atmosphere.
Making another solo record also meant returning to his DIY roots. Although the Michigan native loves to collaborate — in the five years since Carrie’s release, he has scored ballets, unveiled two collaborative records, and written songs for the 2017 film Call Me by Your Name (which earned him an Oscar nod for Best Original Song) — Stevens also wanted to make his next solo album, well, solo. He handled everything from the writing and producing down to the album art and typography.
“I’m not the best producer, and I’m not the greatest at making beats and all that,” he says, with characteristic self-deprecation. “There could be all these other, better people who could probably contribute, but I think for the reason of integrity and identity and authorship, I just wanted to do everything on this record.”
Stevens finished the album alone at his home in rural upstate New York, where he moved last year after living in New York City the past two decades. It’s there that he spent his pandemic summer, trimming trees and chasing groundhogs out of the garden. Though he has no plans to tour behind The Ascension anytime soon (remember: pandemic), he hopes listeners find catharsis in the album’s heavy (and timely) themes of self-betterment amid chaos.
“I’m hashing out different ways of dealing with this kind of apocalyptic nature of our present moment; and how do you reside in a world and create love in a world that feels devastated by its own undoing?” he says. “But I wanted to do it in a way that was listenable and beat-driven and beautiful.”
What could be more fun than that?