Chaotic love and the coming apocalypse: A deep dive into The Age of Adz

The worst marital tiff I ever had was over nothing. Like all of them. It wasn’t memorable because of what it was about—it was memorable because of what it preceded, and what I almost missed out on because of it.

It was the night of the Sufjan Stevens concert at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna, February 2011. Sufjan was here supporting his album The Age of Adz, and as anyone who attended will be only too happy to tell you, it was one of the best shows Auckland has ever witnessed. An event of historic proportions. Which I almost missed because of a dumb marital tiff.

Something I said flicked that switch inside my wife’s mind that produces a cellular reaction similar to what David Banner or Dr Jekyll must have experienced. Incredible Hulk or Dr Hyde … they have nothing on Carolyn once I’ve triggered that switch. There’s little a hapless husband can do but lock himself in the toilet and recite Bible verses. It was one of those nights.

Because we were going to the concert together, I did what any cowardly spouse would do—I offered not to go. An offer she accepted without hesitation. What transpired then I can’t quite remember. But the long and short of it is that I ended up deciding to go. My wife put on her best face but when she saw the joyous masses assembling for the show, she decided it was her turn to lock herself in the bathroom.

Separation and divorce was sure to follow. I had no doubt about it.

But then something miraculous happened. Sufjan turned up and poured his magic on everyone gathered before him. It was like the Lord himself had showed up. The clouds parted and the angels sang and grace and mercy poured out like wine from a chalice. Our tiff was mended, our marriage was healed, and as the balloons fell from the roof and Sufjan went into full party mode, I knew that I had witnessed one of the great spiritual moments.

Anyway, all that to say I revisited The Age of Adz this week on vinyl to remind myself of the power of that night, and of the album’s amazing, but often misunderstood, qualities.

Funnily enough, The Age of Adz (both the album and the subsequent concert tour), is about chaotic love, love so chaotic it could bring on the Apocalypse—a marital breakdown of such stakes that it could cause the end of the world. My favourite kind of love.

The story Sufjan himself told about the album during the concert was how he’d come across the self-proclaimed Prophet Royal Robertson in the desert. The prophet’s art is all over the album and was used all through the concert. It’s as fantastical and mind-blowing as his visions themselves. Robertson suffered paranoid schizophrenia and his art depicted such visions as God turning up in a space ship. His work flourished after his wife left him for another man and Robertson became convicted that he was a target of a global female conspiracy. His divinely inspired work was a message of warning against the apocalypse his wife’s unfaithfulness would bring upon the earth.

I know how he feels.

The concert itself followed a similar sonic journey to that of the album—moments of acoustic and intimate beauty followed by bombastic, frenetic overtures lasting 20 minutes or more. Two drummers, backing singers, synths, crazy costumes, choreographed dances … you name it, the show had it all. It represented the record perfectly.

The album opens with Futile Devices, a song about confused love to a man Sufjan thinks of ‘as a brother’. It’s a foretaste of what’s to come, as Sufjan wastes no time introducing the issue of multifaceted love and the different levels of distress and joy it can cause.

Too Much follows with a statement about what this album is musically. Synths. Drum machine. Polyrhythms. “If I was a different man, if I had blood in my eyes,” Sufjan sings, introducing the story of Royal Robertson. The Age of Adz, like most of Sufjan’s albums, works on multiple levels of meaning. It’s a biography of sorts, recounting Robertson’s painful story. But it’s also confessional, as Sufjan uses Robertson’s story to share aspects of his own. And then it’s the story of all us, which is why Sufjan’s music resonates so widely. The story of chaotic love, pain and cataclysmic relationships that feel like the end of the world is a story all of us share.

“There’s too much love riding on that,” Sufjan says. Too right.

The album stays in this electronica place, which confused and disturbed Sufjan diehards when the album was first released. But a closer listen to the album, particularly on vinyl, shows that despite the electronic bells and whistles the album isn’t far removed from Sufjan’s acoustic work. It has the same soul, for one thing, and some of the Sufjan mainstay acoustic noises are there anyway. The loops and noises are intentional, evoking Robertson’s scifi artwork and his spacey visions. The title track Age of Adz is a good example. Adz is an intentional misspelling of “odds”, taken straight from Robertson’s handwritten scribblings, which on top of everything else are replete with double entendres due to all the spelling mistakes. It results in a free-flowing, stream of consciousness grappling with huge ideas that the album celebrates. The Age of Odds (Adz) describes the absence of self-censoring, and free association and the interplay of ideas. Which is why the album can feel all over the place at times, musically as well as lyrically.

I Walked is more gentle, a subdued computer generated rhythm which loses much of its robotic tone on vinyl. I love this song. It’s an agonisingly painful depiction of the breakdown of a relationship in which the singer pleads for the opportunity to explain things he hasn’t been able to before. Again, it resonates with the story of Royal Robertson, but I suspect there’s something deeply autobiographical going on here too. “I walked, because you walked.” The song depicts the sad truth of relational breakdown—both parties robbed of the opportunity for resolution or closure, with too many things left unsaid. Often one or both parties only walk away because the other has walked. Misunderstanding plays as much a part as raw pain.

A note on the breadth of the instrumentation at this point in the album. I’d always pictured the sonic scope as very broad, like the Louisiana of Robertson’s home where Sufjan first encountered him. I’ve changed my mind after listening to the record more closely. It feels much narrower on vinyl, if not claustrophobic. I wonder if that is intentionally done because of the subject matter. Despite the grand scifi visions, the themes are nevertheless close and stifling.

Something else about the record over the CD is the unfolding of its tracks over four sides. It feels like a true double album rather than a very long disc. It turns out it’s not just a long album after all, it’s a carefully crafted opus in the vein of the prog-rock era concept albums.

Now That I’m Older begins with a choir and is very much Sufjan. A song about the self doubt that comes with age, even as age brings so-called wisdom. It’s dreamy, float-in-the-clouds stuff, evocative of the visions the prophet has put in his art—the “silent man” who comes down “all dressed in radiant colours”, which is a likely reference to God in the spaceship.

Get Real Get Right is as schizophrenic as Robertson himself. The booming bass returns to herald its core message: “Get right with the Lord.” It’s a grand apocalyptic statement. “Do yourself a favour and get real, get right with the Lord.” It’s not so much a cheesboard end of the world warning as a flashing neon sign with pyrotechnics.

Bad Communication is no less spacey, but it’s quieter and is over before it’s begun. “I’ll talk but I know you won’t listen to me.” Hmm, been there! Particularly in February, 2011.

Vesuvius is bubbling magma that never actually erupts. The eruption happens when the song is performed live. On the album the track steadily boils away, lets out a bit of smoke, but never breaks through the crust. It’s the story of a man reaching out to a higher power, in this case the Naples volcano. The song is most powerful when it becomes personal, as Sufjan urges himself to “follow your heart, follow the flame or fall on the floor.” Some have argued Vesuvius is a metaphor for God. There’s some evidence for that. Early in the song Sufjan says to Vesuvius, “You are all I have, fire of fire,” and “For in life as in death, I’d rather be burned than be living in debt.”

Powerful stuff.

All For Myself has a beautiful layered vocal. The woodwind on the track sounds better on vinyl than it does on CD, and a track like this reinforces that The Age of Adz isn’t so far removed from Sufjan’s more acoustic work. It’s another address to a lover in the context of jealousy or threatened relationship. “Then worries came to perch on us, Impatience and a painted bust, I kept you close to me, close to my ear.” The painful refrain … “I want it all, I want it all for myself.”

In contrast, I Want To Be Well is frantic. It represents the chaotic heights of Robertson’s delusions and the crazy freneticism of romantic love and breakdown. In contrast are the ‘ordinary people’ whose lives can be represented by ‘photographs’, as opposed to those characters are best depicted by the intricate art of Robertson (and Sufjan). The narrator is crying out for mental relief (“I want to be well”) and wants to forgive even as he’s being choked with pain. The climax of the track is the album’s high point, the repeated threats of self harm: “I’m not fucking around.” This is a big statement for Sufjan, who uses language like this sparingly, and it brilliantly depicts the turmoil. “I’m suffering in noise, I’m suffering (in touching ordinary bodies); The burning from within, the burning from (with ordinary hysteria); I could not be at rest, I could not be at peace.”

And then, finally, Impossible Soul is extraordinary. The live version was simply one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. The opening lines say it all: “Oh woman, tell me what you want, and I’ll calm down without bleeding out; With a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour; Woman, I was freaking out because I want you to know, my beloved, you are the LOVER OF MY IMPOSSIBLE SOUL.”

Those words.

Impossible Soul is a mini opera in five parts. Part 1 is Sufjan’s plea for understanding. In Part 2 he’s dialoguing with an angelic voice who’s encouraging him to stay on course, and not be afraid, while Sufjan responds that he doesn’t want to feel pain. Part 3 is Sufjan’s Jonah moment, his belly of the whale coming to terms with his own stupidity—to autotune, no less. “Stupid man in the window, I couldn’t be at rest.”

Then this: “Oh I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all.” So what? Give up? No, “Hold on, Suf, Hold on, Suf.”

Part 4 is our hero’s determination to survive and thrive, the realisation that life is not so impossible after all. “Boy, we can do much more together.” It’s possibly the most joyous and hopeful the album feels. At the equivalent point in the concert, life suddenly didn’t seem so bleak. Marital tiffs were seen for what they were—ridiculous. There was even some hand holding.

Part 5 brings the album full circle, by echoing the same acoustic tones that began the album with Futile Devices. In other words, resolution has finally been attained: “I never meant to cause you pain, My burden is the weight of a feather.”

Sufjan has found peace in the chaos where Robertson never did.

Great music takes you to places you don’t expect. Great albums take you on a journey that makes life seem different when the record has finished. Sufjan is an artist who achieves this with everything he does, and The Age of Adz is an extraordinary achievement that stands with his very best. It was a thrill to be taken along for the journey in a brand new way.