I've never been more intrigued by a public figure's religiosity than Sufjan Steven's. The Michigan singer-songwriter became the toast of the Pitchfork crowd with infectious baroque-folk albums like Illinois and Seven Swans. He also managed the seemingly impossible by getting cynical, godless indie kids to listen to music with explicitly Christian themes.
That spiritual clarity is nowhere to be found on Stevens' latest, The Age of Adz. Neither is the pastoral banjo-picking that characterized his mid-2000 efforts. This time around, electronic warbles and burps skitter atop bombastic orchestration and occasional hip-hop flavors. Initially off-putting, the overstuffed sound's intricacies reveal themselves on multiple play-throughs.
The album repeatedly references the bizarre, apocalyptic artwork of schizophrenic artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson. It's difficult to determine whether the songwriting is channeling Robertson or derives from personal experiences. Regardless, those familiar with the devout Seven Swans might be shocked when a distressed Stevens repeatedly shrieks, "I'm not fucking around" on "I Want to Be Well."
I suspect that The Age of Adz will turn off as many Stevens devotees as it engages. But I'm fascinated by it. Most religious artists marketed as such are too self-assured in their worldview to be interesting. Stevens, on the other hand, lets doubt seep into his music, and it's all the better for it.