Review: Sufjan Stevens

Folk's gentlest poster boy cracks up, bares his teeth and makes a career-defining record.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Even in his days as a whispery-voiced troubadour, there was no doubting Sufjan Stevens's brilliance as a musician or the dizzying scope of his ambition—from his intricate chamber-folk tributes to Illinois and Michigan to his multimedia meditation on the BQE.

Stevens's sixth album, however, is a game changer, just as the events that shaped it apparently rerouted the course of the musician's life. Stevens told The New York Times about an exhaustion-related virus that racked both his body and his mental stability; at a recent gig in Seattle, he described the record as "songs of heartache and mental illness, rendered through the phenomenon of the apocalypse."

Accordingly, The Age of Adz is an invigorating, baffling, often very beautiful work. Retrofuturistic synth sounds burble and splutter alongside orchestral flourishes, and galumphing, righteous songs sit side by side with shimmering, exquisite choral arrangements. Besides the surprise of hearing Stevens yell lines like "I'm not fuckin' around!" repeatedly, one of the album's chief delights is its gradual unfolding; if the epic, 25-minute end song "Impossible Soul" sounds disjointed and overwhelming at first listen, it reveals itself as a perfectly paced pop suite over time.

Above all, Adz is Stevens's most full-blooded record, addressing actual love relationships with disarming directness—as alive as a screaming baby, as soft and warm as a lover's cheek and, of course, as complex, ambivalent and all-over-the-place as a real human being. Here's to this most exciting new age.

Sufjan Stevens plays the Beacon Theatre Sun 14 and Mon 15.

This isn't the first time that a meltdown has resulted in a masterpiece—here are our favorite WTF? albums.

Tonight's the Night
Neil Young
Partly a meditation on the drug-overdose deaths of two comrades, Tonight's the Night sums up the eerie delirium of the post-hippie era.

John Coltrane
Whether or not it was actually recorded while he was on LSD, as the lore goes, Om epitomized the saxophone giant's late-career penchant for unrepentantly raw catharsis.

808s & Heartbreak
Kanye West
Long before making a movie music video about dating a phoenix, before even Taylorgate and President Obama calling him "a jackass" (we still wince at that one), Kanye delivered his most surprising, magnificent creation: an Auto-Tuned, melancholy response to the death of his mother, fame and no small amount of romantic trauma.

The Beach Boys
The mother of all crack-up albums, 1967's Smile was to be Brian Wilson's follow-up to Pet Sounds. During its production, Wilson reportedly wrote songs from an indoor sandbox, and asked studio musicians to dress as firemen—which, alas, didn't prevent him from losing tapes in an actual fire. (Wilson issued a newly recorded Smile in 2004, but the original LP was never fully realized.)

Scott Walker
Though this ultra-eccentric crooner had flirted with cryptic darkness on prior efforts, few could have predicted just how far he'd go on this terrifying 1995 opus.

Fleetwood Mac
Watch VH1's Behind the Music doc in which guitarist Lindsey Buckingham talks about recording the screams that underpin Rumours closer "Gold Dust Woman," and you'll get a sense of the ensuing craziness that would be Tusk.

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