The Ascension by Sufjan Stevens Album Review
It’s been quite a while since this project has fully released, and I have been listening to it nigh-nonstop ever since. You can even check my last.fm if you don’t believe me, and that doesn’t even include the times I’ve been listening to it through Discord music bots, other streaming services, or on other devices. And now, I think I can finally say that I am ready to put forth my entire, truthful, and honest thoughts. I mean, you don’t have to listen to a single word I say because I have absolutely no reputation related to music or anything, but I still wanted to get my thoughts on this project into words. This is more a reflection on my thoughts about the themes of the album, rather than a review of the music itself, but I do comment on the instrumentation frequently throughout!
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Section I: The Call to Action, and the Façade of Strength In Leadership
Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse
This is the track I like to think of as the call to action for the album, which makes sense considering it is the intro track. This entire album is a call to action for the problems in current society and the issues we have created. Through the angry, simultaneously smooth and rough synths, beeps, and anxious beats moving throughout the track, it is apparent that there is a message that Sufjan needs to put forth. Through the lyrics we can see Sufjan admitting his impatience with fixing the issues he is describing, to follow his lead, and asking someone (Society, the Government, God? Wouldn’t be surprised on that last one considering his consistent references to religion in all of his works) to make him an offer he cannot refuse. This is the first of many pop culture references throughout the album, this one being The Godfather. The track has a long outro sequence echoing the titular lyrics of the track in a muffled and distorted way, as the beeps and beats continue to blow out of control as they get louder and louder. Until, finally, a short-lasting, ear-blasting silence.
Run Away With Me
This is the point in the album that Sufjan begins to form his action-plan to back up the call to action of the first track, asking the listener to “Run Away” with him, that “They” will terrorize and destroy them. To “Run Away”, in this sense, seems to imply simply leaving behind society. I feel that this track and its follow up, Video Game, are the most pop-like tracks on the album, with more simplistic lyrics that still manage to contribute to the themes of the album significantly. It essentially boils down as a calling to join Sufjan and leave everything wrong with the world behind, and to start anew.
The second single of the album, this track is an amazingly simplistic ode to the greatest Synth-Pop of the 80s. In this track, Sufjan is throwing away the ideas of fame and idolism in society. Through lyrics like “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus” and “I don’t want to be the centre of the universe”, we can see Sufjan sick of being someone being used as an idol, and simply wants to do what he does best, which is making music. By ethereally shouting “I don’t wanna play your video game”, Sufjan does not want to contribute to the modern celebrity culture and all of the tribalism that comes along with it. However, near the end of the track, we see him noting that he does not want to become the enemy by saying this, admitting that “In a way you gotta follow the procedure”, he knows that such concepts of celebrity culture and tribalism are never going to truly go away, and that while he accepts it, he does not want to partake in it.
This track seems to be less from the perspective of Sufjan himself, and more from the future. I mean, the first line of the track is “Take me into all of your life, I am the future, define the future”. In modern society it is an significant issue that people fail to see into the long term, rather focusing on what is going to benefit them as soon as possible despite the issues it may cause in the future. We also see such lines as “I was only thinking of human kindness”, the future that everyone admires and wants to live in is only a future wherein selfishness and greed does not exist. The amazing futures free of problems and societal issues will not exist, if expecting nothing but “Human kindness”. This has remained as one of my favourite tracks throughout the time since the album has released, especially due to the vocal-sampled beats that accompany a breathy, ethereal vocal.
Section II: The Descent Into Anxiety and Doubt
Tell Me You Love Me
This is the first time in the album that we get to see Sufjan’s plan for leading us into a better world begin to falter. We see lyrics such as “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything,” He begins to doubt that a better world is even possible. We see him wishing for some kind of reconciliation “Before everything falls apart”. I believe that the most profound and interesting lyrics in this track lie within
My love, I wish I was a photograph, perfect and lovely in a frame.
My love, my life could be an epitaph, something to right upon my grave
Despite Stevens attempting to utilize the influence he has in the world, he admits to the pure insignificance of his, and many others, lives. His entire career could be whittled down into a one sentence line written upon the grave he is buried under. However, we see this spiral into doubt and loss of faith suddenly followed by a burst of many layers of beats, hi-hats and synths, as another perspective other than Sufjan shouts back toward him “I’m gonna love you, I’m gonna love you everyday.” This is an incredibly interesting line, that, even if someone fails at working towards what they believe in, it is the fact that they worked so hard to get to that point that matters the most.
It is also an interesting thing to note that this song samples a synth piece from his previous album Aporia, entitled “Climb That Mountain”, which, no doubt, has strong connections to the themes in this song (Can I just say that me saying themes so many times really makes me feel like I’m writing this for an English essay...)
This track is, lyrically, rather simplistic, simply repeating “I wanna die happy” every eight measures for the entire duration of the track. Despite this, it is honestly in my top three tracks for the album based just off of its instrumentation alone. While the first two minutes and thirty seconds or so of the track are slow to build up, it is the moment after when it reaches its loudest moment of layering synth upon synth, keyboard upon keyboard, drum upon drum, in such a fantastically mixed way. I honestly can’t see myself listening to any other track when trying to hype myself up, which is rather funny to think about considering the somber nature of the track. While the lyrics simply seem to imply Stevens’ desire to die knowing that the world is a better place, and that he did what he could to contribute to that, I love this track to a great extent.
Oh boy... this techno track is a crazy one, in a good way. The entire track is such an anxious mess of synths, soulless gospel voices and Sufjan’s pleading screams in the background. The song heavily gives off the emotions of feeling incredibly sick, writhing in bed and hoping for the pain to go away. The title of the track is the brand-name for an anxiety medication called Lorazepam, so these emotions seem rather fitting. The lines where Sufjan sings “Is it all for something, is it all part of a plan”, show Sufjan’s strained voice pleading for the suffering to be worth something, to lead to something great that makes it all worth it. “Tranquilize me, sanitize me, Ativan (My leading woman)” shows significantly dark themes of the side effects of such psychological medications, sometimes causing a loss of personality and emotion. This track also contains the hilariously messed up line “Caught up in the baby’s breath, I shit my pants and wet the bed,” which have been the cause of quite a few memes throughout the past few months. As we progress towards the end of the song, the beeping, scraping, hammering, humming, and screaming slowly intensifies as the anxiety gets worse and worse. That is, until a sudden somber sweep of muted strings that begin to overtake the electronics, signifying the application of the anxiety medication, as the person in the song slowly drifts off into a dark lack of emotion, nothingness.
This track sees the return of my favourite vocal-sampled beats, similar to Lamentations. This track seems to be a continuation of the themes of that song, in a sense, where Sufjan is asking the nameless figure to prevent destruction, that he “Can’t account for human nature,” it seems that Sufjan knows the destructive nature of humanity, and that for society to lead to this point was expected. But the important thing to acknowledge here is his begging for forgiveness despite this. He admits the problems in society and that attempting to eliminate that is a futile mission, but that humanity should not be at fault for such nature. It is a part of the human experience to being an absolute idiot, and then to learn from one’s mistakes, and this song reflects that.
Section III: The Anger Toward Humanity, And The Loss of Determination
This track contains one of the greatest radio-ready instrumentations on the album, especially the gripping chorus. We see Sufjan here once again shift towards anger and blame, at least in what I’ve interpreted from the lyrics here since it’s kept rather ambiguous. We see Stevens come to a “Second life”, a sudden moment of realization and self-actualization. This track seems to be focused on his loss of faith in his religion, and humanity. This is evident through the lines “We step in the light, the rise of our tide, my love is a wave, you got me caught in landslide.” This is a stark contrast to the ideas behind the previous track, Ursa Major, where Sufjan begs for forgiveness on behalf of humanity. His appreciation for the people and their ability to be good is swiftly declining as he speaks of the “Circle of Light”. I believe this to be similar to the circle of life, in which there are moments of light and darkness. This is also connected to the statement of his love being a “Wave”, an ever-active visualization of energy, constantly decreasing and increasing in velocity.
Anyone familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh knows that it is the first ever recorded narrative story in history, at least that we’ve discovered. It follows the tale of Gilgamesh and his quest for Immortality. Ultimately, it follows the theme of the uncertainty of life. Despite Gilgamesh’s devotion and gifts to the Gods, he is returned with the death of his ‘friend’ (Partner?) Enkidu. A fair portion of the lyrics follow Gilgamesh as he is comforting Enkidu in his final moments of life. This traumatizing situation forces himself to reflect on his own mortality, even despite being 2/3 god. The next part of lyrics reflects on having to say goodbye, with lyrics “Oh, my heart will leave you now, surrender,” Telling Enkidu to give up in mercy to the Gods. Lyrics such as “Oh, my heart will fantasize of Eden,” offer an insight into Gilgamesh’s, and by extension, Sufjan’s faith in the afterlife. Both of these figures want there to be a means to an end, something to make it all worth it. But this song challenges that idea, in a fantastic Planetarium-esque style.
It’s at this point in the album when Sufjan’s question of human morality and faith turns to one of malice. His earlier words from Ursa Major, begging for the forgiveness of Humanity, has shifted the blame onto humanity itself. Lyrics such as “It’s your own damn head on that plate // Vandalize what you create,” serve as a wake up call for humanity, explaining that we, the people, are the one’s digging our own grave. Our poor treatment of the Earth, and ourselves, are evidently leading into our own demise. The vocals are laid upon a authoritative, 80s Sci-Fi synth track, with a harsh, demanding beat. I believe that both this, and America (The Epilogue of The Ascension) are the most anger-filled tracks, calling the collective out on their ignorance to the truth. While the lyrics to this track are rather repetitive, the underlying message serves to be integral to the album as a whole.
Goodbye To All That
Goodbye To All That transitions almost unnoticeably from Death Star, acting as one of the few moments in the latter have of the album where the listener gets to “Come up for air,” so to speak. This track is tied very closely to Death Star, narrative wise. Where Sufjan was viciously calling out humanity in Death Star, Goodbye To All That serves as a song of acceptance. Sufjan comes to a conclusion on the futility of his efforts, saying to another, potentially his lover, that he wants to leave everything behind. To start anew. While this track is incredibly upbeat compared to the one before it, the lyrics themselves serve the dark idea that introducing real change on a mass scale is ultimately worthless, and that the only option is to leave it all behind.
This is easily in my top three favourite songs for this project. This track is, again, from the point of view of the character of this album, possibly Sufjan. Throughout the lyrics of this track Sufjan is desperate for a break, from the effort, from the work, from the sheer amount of energy it takes to try to change. The lyric repeated throughout the song “Come on baby give me some Sugar,” is said as Sufjan wants his lover to ignore all of the world’s problems, to be happy for once. The most powerful line of this song, “Is that the weight of the world on your back? Surrender with that colourful flag,” darkly explains the theme of the song. The term ‘colourful flag’, refers to the LGBTQ+ movement, one that has persisted for decades in a fight for equal rights. Holding the weight of the world, aka their rights, on their back, he says to surrender. While this may not be an actual opinion he holds on the movement, it pushes the narrative that the character wants to put an end to all the fighting, to not give in to the system, at the expense of a life worth living. The chorus of the track, spouting “Don’t make me wait too long, don’t make me sing the sad song,” imply the harsh control that music has over people. The line serves the idea that the character would have to resort to putting up an emotional, manipulative plea to the other to leave everything behind. As the track reaches it’s end, it gets louder and louder as Sufjan pleas deeply to the other to stay with him, to not leave, to no avail. Until the final seconds of the track, when he utters his final “Come on baby give me some sugar...” realising that his efforts were futile, that there he cannot fight change, or it will go on without him. And now, he is left alone, to search for meaning... anything.
Section IV: The Search For Purpose, And The Question of What Comes Next
The term ‘Ascension’ is of biblical origin, from when Jesus ascended to the heavens. While I may not be religious, I can connect with the idea of dying, finally finding peace, becoming one with the universe at last. Sufjan sings from his death bed in this track, as he reflects on everything he’s worked towards through his life. He believed that he was put on this planet to drive change, to make the world a better place. Lines such as “Nothing to be told, nothing to confess,” however, serve to show his lack of an answer at the end of his life. He questions whether it was worth it, if any of it meant anything. The lyric “But now, it strikes me far too late again / that I was asking far too much of everyone around me,” show his realisation that change can’t happen in such immediate ways. He comes to the understanding that his belief that he held the power to drive such change came from a place of selfishness and toxicity in and of itself, proving the irony of his efforts. Sufjan approaches his final ascension, knowing that everything that gave his life meaning is now meaningless, thinking he should have resigned himself to a life of simplicity.
Despite all of these words, his final paragraph brings a glimmer of light to his final moments, understanding that it strengthens him to know the truth, that his life truly did have meaning. He believes that even though the work was futile, that he did it out of a place of genuine adoration and hope for the human race. He speaks to whichever holy deity here as well, putting some of the blame on the higher power, as well.
Despite this sudden moment of positivity, the track ends on a sombre note. Sufjan shouting repeatedly into the void “What now? What now?” Did any of his life have meaning, was there a point to any of it... what now? Existentialism.
I believe that this track serves as a type of Epilogue to the album as a whole. Where the titular track “The Ascension” makes you feel for the character as he lies on his death bed, “America” makes you feel like the character. The main lyric repeated throughout this twelve-minute epic is the phrase “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” This lyric speaks significant volumes to the career of Sufjan in its entirety. A discography filled with personal, hopeful, sombre folk tracks related to the states he grew up in brought a rose-tinted view onto life in America. This track turns that beautiful rose-tint into a sombre darkness, devoid of joy. Sufjan recognizes America for the combative, exploitive place that it has become. Lyrics such as “I have broke your bread for a splendor of machinery,” show Sufjan admitting to his own privilege throughout life, how he has participated in the flawed system and benefited from it. Sufjan feels broken in this track, like there’s ultimately no hope for the country. All he asks at this point, is to not end up like America, where the country is a husk of its former self, Sufjan wants to live past that, not shackled by the major problems it has brought upon itself.
The final five minutes of the track are devoid of vocals. As a series of droning synths come into view, just to drift away as a new synth takes its place, shows the monotony and dread that has plagued Sufjan on his quest for change. It isn’t until we reach the final two minutes of the track that we reach a new understanding. A beautiful shapeless, hopeless choir overtakes the droning as a synthesized series of mallets play a harmonized auditory visualization of meaningless acceptance. These final moments symbolize the death of the character. This sombre series of instrumentation reflects on the titular track of the Album, where Sufjan searched for meaning (What now?). We have reached the “Ascension,” the desperate search for meaning and change now becomes meaningless as we drift away to whatever comes next.
I know this hasn’t really been a review, in the true sense of the word. I just wanted to put my thoughts on the project into words. This album has meant a lot to me since it released, and I’ve been thinking on the meaning of the album ever since. Of course, the album isn’t without its quirks and issues here and there, but Sufjan has had a significant place in music for me over the years, so I am incredibly biased. This project was the first time I’ve seen Sufjan make an album that was focused more on universal experiences, rather than a personal exploration of his life, and I loved every second of it. Despite that idea, it also seems like this album is a deep reflection on how Sufjan Steven’s has viewed the world for the last few years, potentially even longer.
This review didn’t even include the B-Side “My Rajneesh” which is a fantastic take on selfishness, and blinding yourself in your devotion to a meaning bigger than any one person. Highly recommend checking that out!