In 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois or Come On, Feel the Illinoise, as it's also known. One of the most acclaimed albums of the decade, this ambitious and frequently breathtaking work mingling fact and fiction, elevated the Michigan singer, multi-instrumentalist and arranger into the front rank of American song.
Illinois was the second album of what he teasingly called his "50 States Project" (following Greetings from Michigan), but anybody hoping for his take on Texas or Rhode Island would be disappointed. Instead, Stevens has spent the past five years mucking around. There have been throwaway Christmas collections, a soundtrack inspired by a road (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) and an hour-long EP announced at the last moment and freely available online. None of these projects have done him favours.
The Age of Adz is his first album proper since Illinois and, unusually for Stevens, there's no concept. The title, we're told, is inspired by the work of the late, fringe visual artist Royal Robertson, but the songs are personal in nature, sometimes brutally so. He's not afraid to spew out what he considers to be his failings, especially in the realm of love. Like his early work, this is an album that wears its ambition on its sleeve. Stevens doesn't like to do things by halves -- whether it's the dizzying arrangements or the fact that the closing song is 25 minutes long. There are several moments here that justify the high regard with which he's held, including the spine-tingling vocals on Now That I'm Older and the woozy orchestration on the title track.
On Illinois, Stevens proved that self-indulgence and great art could be happy bedfellows. Here, he loses his way. He has added electronic bleeps and glitches. The effect is completely over-done. This problem is apparent on the aptly named Too Much. In places, his avant-garde approach is unlistenable. Yet, Stevens' talent shines through. The closer, Impossible Soul, is overlong. Still, it boasts more ideas and innovation than most songwriters achieve in a lifetime.
Burn it: Now That I'm Older; Impossible Soul