the scintillating anxiety of sufjan stevens! (a.k.a forget pitchfork, “the ascension” is best new music!)

(i’m going to write in all lowercase like a bushwick indie male manipulator. also, despite the title, no hate to fleet foxes. love u robin pecknold <3)

the last year has been a really weird time period in my life. everything went downhill from august 2019 until it started picking up again after may 2020. it started with my unresolved quarter life crisis from the summer. then, the person i was seeing at the time moved to a different state. then the september protests happened and i had to face people who doesn’t understand basic human rights. then came the classism and racism of the indonesian undergrad student community in new york. with all the hard computer science classes i took, i thought i was going to fail my major. (and i chose to end art humanities class–the only non-cs class i took that semester–by writing a paper on francisco goya’s regressing mental health. dumb, dumb me). this all happened while at the same time, i had looping images in my head of that night where me and the person i was seeing went to see a jazz show earlier that year (and how we almost kissed in the subway station…. now that i think about it…. ew). when things started getting uphill in my life on february, a worldwide pandemic happened and gifted me with an arduous job hunting process, suddenly saying goodbye to my college friends, the cancellation of my bachelor’s degree commencement, and countless threatening policies against my immigration status (which was rescinded, thankfully).

staying up late writing my essay & looking at goya’s the disasters of war for an extended period of time is definitely an awful choice. damn i should’ve chose monet instead

i stopped drinking coffee and started drinking alcohol a lot more (there are days where i couldn’t function without taking a shot of hard liquor). i started getting bouts of anxiety attacks before job interviews, after another shitty policy was announced, etc. i disguised my anxiety with humor and being a funny person towards my friends (whom i only had a few of). i had a strong feeling that my anxiety will never go away.

why did i choose to remember that cursed time of my life? i didn’t choose to. sufjan stevens called me out.

today is the release day of stevens’ newest album, the ascension, his first non-instrumental album since 2015’s carrie and lowell. it seems like audiences are more keen on stevens’ work when he’s a sad soft indie boy, and less when he’s angry, sad, and epic. i’ve enjoyed stevens’ electronic work even more than the acoustics people came to love (currently visualizing myself from fall 2018, where i re-read the iliad with “age of adz” playing in the background, there’s nothing like imagining achilles fighting a river with those swooping synthesizers in the background). this very reason is why i was so excited about the prospect of a new lyrical electronic album. however, the ascension was not the age of adz 2. i didn’t imagine odysseus’s muscle-y pecs while listening to it. it was a lot darker. the ascension brought me back to visits to the counselor, long walks down snowy broadway, the period where i stopped drinking coffee. from the point of view of someone who has been through a very anxiety-inducing last two years of college, i understood the ascension completely.

the album is full of cultural references: from things as new as lana del rey’s “video game(s)” and carly rae jepsen’s “run away with me”, as classic as joan didion’s “goodbye to all that” and the godfather’s “make me an offer i cannot refuse, to the epic of “gilgamesh” and the book of “lamentations”. the starter track is yet another cultural reference: “make me an offer i can’t refuse.” it starts with distorted choral songs that stops abruptly, giving way to stevens’ soft melisma, which stops and transitions to a swift electronic arrangement. then after a few verses, stevens takes us to a beat break that feels more like traveling through a sonic wormhole of bursting emotions. it’s hard to explain–all you need to know is when i heard the beat drop, i dropped my jaw (and the toothbrush i was brushing my teeth with), looked at myself in the mirror, and thought, “damn, this is sick.” stevens is very, very angry in this track, with lyrics like “move through to me / move like the ghost of a hazardous demon.” he scared me. now i know why he stopped his 50 states project–he has lost his veneration towards america (“show me the face of the radical dream / there’s no time for severance”).

as i go through the album, stevens navigates through several different emotions, but there is an underlying theme both sonically and musically: anxiety. in “video game,” he is sick of individual veneration and idolatry and “just wanna go away.” in “run away with me,” stevens sings about wanting to escape in the face of terror. in “ursa major,” he calls to god for help, and in “goodbye to all that” onwards, he accepts his hopelessness. but the fast-moving, vast sonic landscape in which he built his lyrics upon help contextualize these lyrics into an overarching emotion. he even named “ativan”, a medication used to treat anxiety, as one of his songs.

a repeated motif in this album is the repetition of short pieces of lyrics through swooping instrumentals that becomes grander as the song goes. this is a signature of sufjan stevens himself even in his most well-known songs (“all things go / all things grow” in “chicago”, “we’re all gonna die” in “fourth of july”, and “is it a video? / visions of gideon” in “visions of gideon”, to name a few), however, every song in the ascension includes some kind of lyrical repetition. he brings this to the extreme in “die happy,” where he only sings “i wanna die happy” over and over again. i’ve always interpreted stevens’ repetition as some sort of mantra or nod towards his christian upbringing, generally to bring forth his point in each songs. after listening to the ascension, i’m starting to doubt that that’s the case. his lyrical repetition in this album feels more like the affirmations i say to myself every time i get anxious/get one of those anxiety attacks. i imagine the protagonist of this album sitting in a fetal position, rocking back and forth, saying repeatedly, “i wanna die happy.”

if we were to argue that this album follows some sort of an arc, we can say that the few penultimate songs serve as some sort of realization that everything is futile, and an acknowledgement of hopelessness: “now that all of my dreams have been confiscated / circa 1975” in “goodbye to all that” (stevens was born in 1975), “and now it frightens me, the dreams that I possess / to think I was acting like a believer / when I was just angry and depressed” in “the ascension”. the last song, “america”, is both a declaration of hopelessness towards the country and the self, but it also acts as a cautionary tale and a reclamation of agency: “don’t do to me what you did to america / don’t do to me what you do to yourself,” he sings.

and the last couple of minutes to the ascension–ugh, the ending!–is filled with haunting violin-like synths, echoing throughout the rest of the final track. it reminded me to the caretaker’s everywhere at the end of time, a six hour album about dementia starting with samples of old jazz music on crackling vinyl, in which the crackling gets louder and louder as the album goes on until the music becomes white noise–and ended with a tonal drone and haunting violin-like synths. thinking about how the album is supposed to portray one’s experience with dementia (the crackle and the white noise are gaps in memory and the old music is the memory), there is a lot to guess about what the synths supposed to represent. growing up catholic i’d argue it was some kind of a light at the end of the tunnel (death? god? oblivion? reprieve from pain?) at the time where gaps overtake one’s memory to the point where they don’t recognized themself anymore. i like to think that the ascension works the same way–after stevens’ 1hr30min of anxiety, there is some sort of deliverance at the end. death? god? oblivion? reprieve from pain? the interpretation is left to the listener.

me listening to the ascension

listening to the ascension, as weird as it gets, i recognize someone familiar behind the music. i see myself reflected in the album the same way i see myself in ellie chu from the half of it or rob brooks from hulu’s high fidelity remake pre-episode 9 (iykyk how shit the show gets on its last two episodes). i was that protagonist, sitting in a fetal position, rocking back and forth, saying repeatedly, “i wanna die happy.” i formed a distrust in the self-veneration of social media and hiring through a 0.3 second glance to one’s resumes and “just wanna go away.” i went to church and listened to sermons (shoutout to father halloran for getting me into catholic mysticism) to try to find myself again. i was begging to be loved by anyone. i was trying to escape–taking a gap year and raise cattle in finland or whatever. last year i drowned in the self-indulgent affirmation that no one understood this, that i was going through this alone. the ascension proved me wrong. this is sufjan stevens in his most vulnerable and is possibly the saddest, most emotionally affecting record i’ve heard from him (sorry carrie and lowell). but on the flip side, he gets my sorrow from the last year.

sometimes, this album can get too much musically. “death star” is ominous and disconcerting in its minor key, “goodbye to all that” has a piercing ringing tone near the end that hurts your ear, and some of the songs’ interludes are basically atonal. however, these decisions stevens made conveys a meaning deeper than just comprehensible melodies. music doesn’t have to be pretty for it to be great. the fact that debussy makes pretty music does not make him better than the atonal schoenberg. if someone sees themself in the music, it’s a great work of art for them. this past year i’ve also been thinking about greatness and how it’s relative to everyone based on their past experiences. and yeah, it is indeed different. the ascension spoke to me so much it reminded me of my past experiences struggling with my mental health. even though it gets depressing to remember that time in my life, it’s always great to find someone (or something) who gets you.

all this to say, yeah, sufjan stevens’ new album is amazing. however, i can only write this review (and listen to the album on loop for hours) in my current state, happy as a clam. if i were to listen to this during that august-may period, i don’t know what i would do to myself. so please, please, listen to this when you’re in the right mental state. it just gets too real ,dude. maybe it’s a good thing that sufjan stevens’ and fleet foxes’ new record was released on the same week; shore is way more hopeful and grateful and will fix the emotional damage the ascension gave you. but the good thing is that the ascension just gets me. so bad. it’s too real.

listen to the ascension here:

and here are some organizations helping people with anxiety that you can donate to:

One response to “the scintillating anxiety of sufjan stevens! (a.k.a forget pitchfork, “the ascension” is best new music!)”

  1. this was very fun to read n i agreed with a lot of it, it’s nice to read someone saying nice things about this album who liked it for the same reason as me, the unsettling tension of anxiety. also im reading the iliad right now n i think that i will listen to age of adz while i finish it lmao. thabk u internet stranger hope ur doing good xoxo

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