During the early years of the twenty-first century, commentators on American cultural life had begun to notice a certain social wide attitudinal shift. In the latter decades of the second millennium, a smirking, cynical stance had come to infect everything from advertising to television, literature to music. Characterizable as affectless, where anything perceived as too earnest or genuine was treated with sarcasm and condescension, this epidemic of irony appeared as a product of so-called postmodernity, a psychosocial response to late capitalism’s global dominance and the rise of the consumer-focused free market economy. As David Foster Wallace recognized1, postmodern irony was inherently negative and exclusionary, offering no remedial solutions to the problems it endlessly critiqued. Cynicism for cynicism’s sake, this self-reflexive mode of existence would eventually become so corrosive that something altogether more wholesome and optimistic was desperately needed to step in and take its place. From the late-90s to the mid-00s, culture began steadily to move back in the direction of sincerity. Irony became passé, redundant and unuseful for a hopeful new generation coming of age under the bright lights of the third millennium. Labelled as ‘believers’, this generation proved itself unafraid of demonstrating genuine passion as they dreamed, however naïvely, of a more optimistic future.
In early-millennium discussions of this ‘new’ sincerity in the sphere of music, one name commonly cited was that of Sufjan Stevens. The Michigan-born singer-songwriter seemed the very embodiment of irony’s antithesis; an openly devout Christian, he delivered deeply personal songs in a distinctive whispery hush, unafraid of sounding either vulnerable or sentimental. Widespread attention came Stevens’ way with the infamous ‘Fifty States Project’, a gargantuan promise of fifty albums celebrating the respective cultures and histories of each American state. The idea was met with intense excitement, not least because of the high acclaim that greeted its first two instalments, 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois. On both these albums, Stevens presented America not as some cultural wasteland deserving only of disparagement, but as a sprawling tapestry replete with disparate cultures and diverse peoples, where each state, city, and backwater town brimmed with unique stories and personalities waiting to be uncovered. Michigan and Illinois brought attention to once archaic ideas of community and shared heritage, and by intertwining personal songwriting with the albums’ universal scopes Stevens succeeded in recontextualizing the globalized and decentred 21st century individual back once again into their immediate locality.
Michigan and Illinois managed to side-step post-9/11 jingoism by considering America and its history with a critical eye. Stevens’ aim was above all to create a comprehensive but honest homage to America and its myriad peoples. He painted sympathetic portraits of working-class life, granting as much time to unglamorous stories of small-town romance and peripheral tragedy as he did to great figures and moments that helped shape the nation’s history. Stevens was, in a sense, mythologizing America, presenting it as a multicoloured mosaic where cultures mixed and where local identities still mattered in an age of homogenising mass media and consumption. His approach embodied wide-eyed sincerity at its most ambitious, his belief in America’s potential for good overpowering any cynicism towards seemingly antiquated ideas like patriotism or national pride.
Of course, the ‘Fifty States Project’ turned out to be nothing more than a promotional campaign, albeit one Stevens seemed for a short while to take seriously. Still, in the fifteen years since the release of Illinois the project continues to linger around the margins of any discussion of Stevens career. It was therefore impossible not to think of it when the artist dropped a twelve-minute single earlier this summer that was titled, quite simply, ‘America’.
‘America’ sounds nothing like the celebrations of place we hear on similar geographically-titled Sufjan songs like ‘Chicago’ or ‘Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)’. Instead, Sufjan’s focus turns inwards as he explores his own relationship with the country: “I have loved you; I have grieved/ I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he sings, revealing his irremediable disillusionment. The song is deeply personal, an account of Sufjan’s failed relationship with America as an ideal rather than a nuanced social critique of its contemporary failings. Stevens sounds mired in alienation of the worst kind, not that of facing something unknown, but that of facing something once regarded with love, now altered to the point of unrecognition. ‘America’ shatters the very mythology Stevens once endeavoured to write, and whereas his previous work celebrated the nation for its plurality and heterogeneity, he now resorts to a sweeping gesture that homogenizes rather than particularizes. His romantic vision has dissipated, and while before his music presented America as something vast and incomprehensible, it now appears as an idea easily surmisable in a single song.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stevens called himself “‘inherently a pessimist’”, stating that “‘[f]or the first time ever, on The Ascension, I’m being honest about what I feel about the world.’”2 It is a startling confession from the man once heralded as music’s voice of sincere optimism, who donned angel wings during live performances and has released more than 100 Christmas songs over the course of his twenty-one-year career. Stevens’ pessimism is reflected in the album’s departure from the folksy chamber-pop he first became known for (although sonic experimentation is by no means anything new for him). There were practical reasons for this choice. Last year Stevens moved from his Brooklyn studio to a secluded space in the Catskills, and with all his instruments in storage he was left reliant on electronics for the creation of his new album. The glitchy instrumentation notably reflects the theme of personal fragmentation that permeates Sufjan’s lyrics on The Ascension. Take ‘Ativan’, for example, where layers of crackling static and delirious electronics sound like the sonic equivalent of anxiety simmering just beneath the surface, threatening to erupt at the slightest provocation. The track’s pulsing beat accelerates, mimicking the onset of panic, while robotic whirrs point towards a loss of control, faults and cracks appearing in the bodily mechanism. As the track finally draw to a lethargic close, the kicks slow to a throb, while drowsy strings signal the oncoming relief of a benzodiazepine finally kicking in. It is instrumentation reflective of a fraught state of mind – fracturing, chaotic, haunted.
In contrast with the poetic ambiguity that usually informs Stevens’ lyrics, many tracks on The Ascension fall back on clichés and declaratives. Take the escapist fantasy ‘Run Away with Me’, or the vulnerable simplicity of ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, or even ‘Sugar’, where Stevens recurringly invites his collocutor to “come on, baby, give [him] some sugar”. This is not the result of lazy songwriting, however; Sufjan wields these clichés with a degree of self-awareness that makes it clear his intent is something more compelling. “What hasn’t killed me will make me stronger”, he sings on ‘Goodbye to All That’; rather than a declaration of self-empowerment the line resembles a mere platitude, a mantra Sufjan uses to encourage himself in the hope that one day he might actually come to believe it.
Clichés embody one of language’s secondary functions, in that rather than solely conveying meaning they also provide a level of comfort. The attribution of familiar phrases to unfamiliar new contexts is an act of reassurance. When we feel unable to express ourselves fully and communicate in meaningful, original language, clichés step in to fill the potentially unsettling gap. It is as if the complexity of Sufjan’s emotional experience vis à vis the ever-shifting social landscape of contemporary America defies linguistic representation. The use of platitudes highlights his feelings of overwhelm, his reliance on overused phrases functioning primarily as a soother in the face of his own stress and uncertainty. He implicitly recognizes that he is saying little with these overused phrases, but by resorting to them he is in fact saying much about his own emotional state and his need for the consolations brought about by familiar language.
Fans of Sufjan Stevens are not unacquainted with the darker directions his songwriting can take. Even Illinois, despite its charm and playfulness, was packed full of references to America’s grisly past, from the displacement and genocide of native populations, to the Underground Railroad and slave-owning legacy of Andrew Jackson. Personal struggles with depression and meaninglessness were furthermore central themes of 2015’s Carrie and Lowell, an album written in the aftermath of the death of the artist’s mother. Still, even in this album’s bleakest moments there always remained some faint glimmer of hope. ‘The Only Thing’ expressed faith in the everyday “signs and wonders” Stevens relied upon to steer his mind away from suicidal thoughts, while in ‘Should Have Known Better’ he sang of his brother’s daughter and “the beauty that she brings”, acknowledging her very being as reason enough to struggle against the darkness of total despair.
On The Ascension, however, Stevens doesn’t sound depressed so much as tired and jaded, and in a sense this is harder for us as listeners to come to terms with. While the album’s overall sound doesn’t conjure up the same mournful atmosphere of Carrie and Lowell’s sparse harp-like guitars, many of The Ascension’s lyrical themes offer little in the way of optimistic recompense. Stevens at times sounds mean, at others unabashedly nihilistic. On the album’s second single ‘Video Game’, he expresses distaste in being regarded as anyone’s “personal Jesus”, making it clear that his focus is on the work he creates and not on the recognition it brings him. The track’s accompanying music video features a choreographed dance performance from TikTok star Jalaiah Harmon, the fifteen-year-old’s bold assertiveness converging nicely with the song’s lyrics to generate an unexpectedly moving critique of today’s online entertainment industry where fame is currency and idolatry the ultimate signal of success.
On the song ‘Die Happy’, meanwhile, Sufjan repeats the line “I wanna die happy” over and over to a point of utter defamiliarization. By the song’s end the listener remains unclear if the expression signals an optimistic longing for happiness or is a pessimistic observation on Sufjan’s inability to find satisfaction in the finitudes of existence. Once again, Stevens is exploring the limitations of language; meaningful communication is disrupted and listeners are left scrambling as they try to decipher the underlying significance of Sufjan’s cryptic writing.
It must be acknowledged that The Ascension can, at least initially, come across as a dirge. While the personal tragedies of Carrie and Lowell may seem more intricately painful, they do offer respite in the sense that Stevens recognizes his own responsibility in striving to overcome despair. The Ascension, however, sees the artist overwhelmed by chaos from the outside, his inner turmoil directly linked with broader social upheavals that he cannot control. If Carrie and Lowell is an album concerned with the battles we must face against the dark forces inside of us, then The Ascension explores the struggles of coping with external disorder that resists our attempts to control it. On this album we do not hear Sufjan rising to the challenge of a fight against despair, but instead succumbing to his own nihilistic impulses. His crisis of faith is most poignantly explored on the penultimate track, ‘The Ascension’, one of the most confessional songs Stevens has ever recorded. Here he delves into themes of hopelessness and inadequacy, lamenting his personal shortcomings and his inability to instigate meaningful change. Singing from the depths of despair, he declares:
And to everything there is no meaning
A season of pain and hopelessness
I shouldn’t have looked for revelation
I should have resigned myself to this.
These are the words of an individual overwhelmed by his own endless doubts. It is Sufjan Stevens as we have never heard him before; empty, without hope, and without confidence in God to see him through this moment of utmost turmoil.
Disillusionment, fear, anxiety, and nihilism are emotional states we all must experience at some stage or another. But they are emotional states that deserve to be adequately processed and shared. If we are to understand sincerity as the avowal of genuine feeling, then a sincere work of art need not limit its scope only to what seems endlessly redeeming and magical about the world. Sometimes the act of sharing how frightened, angry, or disenchanted we are is the only positive course of action available to us. The very act of communicating negative emotions is a cathartic one; it offers us a chance to regroup, to evaluate what is inherently flawed in our lives and is therefore most deserving of our attention. On The Ascension, Stevens has succeeded in holding a mirror up to the emotional turmoil many of us will have experienced this past year. It is an album that recognizes things cannot always be wonderful and meaningful, that life can oftentimes be ugly and embarrassing and highly painful, a thing we must simply endure. What do we do when our optimism runs out? Where do we look when hope disappears? Is nihilism a justifiable reaction to a world spinning out of control? Stevens is unable to provide us with answers to these questions; but, simply by asking them, he is voicing an emotional uncertainty many must recognize only too well.
(1) Wallace, David Foster, ‘E Unibus Plurum, Television and U.S. Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993), pp.151-194 (p.183).
(2) Kornhaber, Spencer, ‘Sufjan Stevens’s Problem With America’, The Atlantic, (23 September 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/09/sufjan-stevens-ascension-bossy-and-bitchy/616366/, [Accessed 19 October 2020].