After 2015’s openly autobiographical Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens makes a dramatic musical left turn from intimate, acoustic-based songs to textural electronic music on his 8th solo LP. Stevens, who's no stranger to taking on large-scale projects, builds on the synth-heavy soundscapes of his instrumental album with stepfather Lowell Brams, Aporia, while channeling the eccentric energy of his more experimental works The Age of Adz and Enjoy Your Rabbit. But The Ascension is its own powerful statement—throughout this 15-track, 80-minute spiritual odyssey, he uses faith as a foundation to articulate his worries about blind idolatry and toxic ideology.
From soaring new age (“Tell Me You Love Me”) and warped lullabies (“Landslide”) to twitchy sound collages (“Ativan”), The Ascension is mercurial in mood but also aesthetically consistent. Stevens surrenders to heavenly bliss on “Gilgamesh,” singing in a choir-like voice as he dreams about a serene Garden of Eden before jarring, high-pitched bleeps bring him back to reality. On the post-apocalyptic “Death Star,” he pieces together kinetic dance grooves and industrial beats inspired by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ production work with Janet Jackson—which is no coincidence given that Stevens shared a photograph of his cassette copy of Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 on his blog. Stevens ultimately wishes to drown out all the outside noise on "Ursa Major," echoing a sentiment that resonates regardless of what you believe: “Lord, I ask for patience now/Call off all of your invasion.”