The majority of the album was recorded with a drum machine and several Prophet synthesizers while Stevens’ more signature equipment – acoustic guitars and banjos – was in storage during a move. Leaving his longtime home in Brooklyn for a more scenic and remote location in the Catskills, the 45-year-old songwriter found new hobbies, like getting off the internet and buying a tractor. Consciously or not, these songs follow an equally scenic journey, zooming out of the everyday to the types of choruses that have become pop music clichés, in large part because of how good they feel to say and to hear: I want to love you. Run away with me. Tell me that You Love Me.
It’s one of the first things that strikes you about this blocky electronic music – the clean language and choruses that echo radio hits and pop culture. The cerebral and ambitious songwriter – whose songlists once looked like stage instructions to an original piece – now seems determined to speak directly, taking you with him. This leads to seductions (“Make love to me / forsake your mind / sing my eulogy”), threats (“wipe that look on your face”) and naked confessions. At one point, he sings in a breathless whisper, “I shit my pants and wet the bed” – a hard thing to imagine coming from an artist who wore huge angel wings on stage.
Stevens tried something similar on another major pivot, the 2010s The era of Adz. In these songs, he sang over buzzing synths and clicking beats, turned to conversational language, and moved away from nuanced storytelling and character studies of his past. At the same time, the compositions on Adz were a continuation of his more symphonic work, surrounding his voice with counter-melodies and choirs, building crescendos accompanied by flute and epics in several parts. It seemed new to him but still played to his strengths: sincere, ecstatic, too much.
L’Ascension, in comparison, is spared and sad, intentionally repetitive and almost entirely to the beat. Many of his arrangements are reminiscent of craggy, neon-lit halfpipes that Stevens slide up and down, sometimes screaming along the way and sometimes mumbling anxiously. A song called “Die Happy” has only one lyric – “I Want to Die Happy” – which he sings over and over again, relying on twists and layers of synths to add new dimensions to his mantra. It all works best when you approach it like a big budget IMAX movie set in space with a big lead actor: don’t get too hung up on the plot – just tilt your head back and watch it float.
Every once in a while Stevens lands on something magical and his writing transcends. This happens in the last 70 seconds of the otherwise devilish “Tell Me You Love Me,” and it happens again in “Landslide,” when he screams the track in a desperate chirp, incorporating his own voice into the arrangement as a sample . In these moments, the slow and regular combustion pays off. It lets you experience the feeling of freeing yourself from something heavy and monotonous that is pulling you under.
Stevens has spoken of feeling emotionally drained after having Carrie et Lowell, a silent album that revealed childhood traumas with vivid memories and silent acoustic arrangements. It makes sense that he follows it with something less revealing, more open to interpretation. Several songs discuss upcoming crises of faith and apocalypses, and they use their pop choruses to offset gravity, to place her stories in the present, to give us something to dance to. “I think about this record too, because it’s political, bossy and bitchy,” Stevens said. Atlantic, “Must have been a little fun, sonically.”
But despite his allusions to the escape from pop music, L’Ascension is, by design, a flirtatious kind: a dark, emotionally distant room whose lyrics rarely touch on the specifics needed to anchor the music, and whose music is rarely exciting enough to lift its words. “Every song title on the album is a cliché,” he admitted le Sleeping. “… I’m desperate for some kind of platitude that tells me where to go and how to run my business in a healthy and sustainable way. It’s a relatable anxiety, although, on purpose or not, it usually seems stuck in place. Not to mention the fact that he’s been here before, and too few of these thoughts come close to prayer-like resonance, let’s say, “Everything is fine,” or “I want to be fine” or “We’re all going to die.” “.
In his search for direction, L’Ascension does best when Stevens looks inside. He finds impetus in the bittersweet “Goodbye to All This”, reverting to one of his most familiar settings: on the road, discouraged, “embedded despair.” And just before the big curtain of “America,” there’s the title track – the moment when Stevens accepts his strength and talks about the moment. “But now,” he sings in the most heart-wrenching parts of his falsetto, “it hits me too late again / That I was asking way too much of everyone around me. Whichever perspective he sings from, it sounds tapped into something basic, filled with purpose and clarity, following wherever his vision leads. He looks like himself.
Acheter: Rough Trade
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