By the time The Age of Adz appeared on the internet, just a month or so after we learned that it even existed, everyone knew not to be fooled by its gentle, acoustic opener, "Futile Devices."At just over two minutes, it’s an uncharacteristically brief song, with banjo and strings and some wonderfully breathy vocals. It feels breezy and weighty at the same time, the same peculiar duality Simon & Garfunkel were able to achieve at their best. It’s charming and subtle, and it’s the last time anything like it happens on the record.
The word from day one was that, after a much publicized session of hand-wringing over the future of music and the future of the album, which culminated in him wondering if he’d ever even make music again, Sufjan Stevens decided to ditch the organic, heavily-orchestrated sound he’d honed on Illinois and Michigan in favor of, what else, synthesizers. Sufjan has gone electronic, and the results are spotty at best.
Considering his background as a composer and his famous infatuation with miniscule details, not to mention the fact that, to be fair, he’s made a good amount of music that didn’t sound like anything that came before it, it’s surprising just how amateurish the electronic elements come off here. The beats are forgettable, and the production is uninspired—far too much of the album sounds like what people who don’t know anything about electronic music say all electronic music sounds like. The regularity with which he turns to subtle variations of the "thump-tssss"trope is troubling, as is his surprising inability to extract any serviceable melody from the very technology the album’s based on.
What will come as a surprise to exactly no one is that the album’s best moments are when Stevens allows his vocals to jump to the forefront and provide a brief reminder of the type of triumphant, life-affirming melody this guy’s capable of. And the truth is, those moments come in nearly every song—there’s simply too much of little worth going on between them, and the overall effect is nowhere near as thrilling as it should have been. It’s a problem he could address in one of two ways: he could either cut the length of the songs in half, which wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing, or he could simply work to become more acquainted with his new tools. He should be applauded for pushing himself in new directions, but he’s not quite there yet.