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Album review: Sufjan Stevens' 'Age of Adz'

October 12, 2010 | 12:09 pm

Sufjan “We cannot think of any art of our time as latter-day cave paintings,” wrote the art historian Paul Arnett in a recent essay about African American vernacular art. Confronting the work of “primitives” like Royal Robertson – whose magic-marker drawings inspired the new album by the indie-pop urban homesteader Sufjan Stevens -- Arnett noted that even the most isolated among them were influenced by widely available media, like comic books or television, as well as by literature and religious ideas. Robertson may have lived in a trailer and suffered from schizophrenia, but he also once took a correspondence course in art.

Stevens took a big chance by linking his work so strongly to that of Louisiana native Robertson on “The Age of Adz,” titling the album after one of his artworks and adorning the CD booklet with many more. Stevens is far from the first fey rock dude to claim commonality with a Southern outsider artist (remember the 1980s Howard Finster craze?); but to do so when you’re a much-admired member of the Brooklyn art mafia, already teetering on the edge of preciousness, is to risk fatal self-importance.

Luckily for Stevens, intimacy is his strongest suit. Somehow, no matter how many layers of electronic filigree clutter his arrangements, or how many brass or choral parts harken back to some past he’s mostly imagined, Stevens writes music in a way that always feels personal, and often thrillingly private.

His breakthrough album “Illinois,” now 5 years old, established the framework for current songsmiths treading the ground between classically leaning “new music” and more conventional song forms. “The Age of Adz” responds to artists who’ve splashed big since Stevens’ emergence as it maps out a new style in the space where the archaic collides with the avant-garde.

Royal Robertson’s work offers Stevens a model for this approach. The sign painter drew with a strong hand, not delicately but with great attention to detail. His pictures link old myths to science-fiction scenarios, all relating to his own sad family dramas (he blamed his wife, who left him after 19 years, for his imagined apocalypse). They’re idiosyncratic, but they come alive in the bigger world.

The songs on “The Age of Adz” do something similar. Working to reconcile a newly heightened interest in electronics with his love of chamber instruments and choral voices (not to mention his gift for hushed, folkish ballads), Stevens ventures widely on this 85-minute disc to find the best way to express what turn out to be basic home truths.

“All For Myself” touches on the computer-manipulated soul of his recently arrived rival, Bon Iver. “I Want To Be Well” has the jittery bounce of Animal Collective. “Now That I’m Older” is crooner revisionism, reminiscent of Antony Hegarty. “I Walk” seems to reference Elliott Smith while borrowing a melody from Regina Spektor. Joanna Newsom is in there somewhere, too, in Stevens’ puzzle-piece lyrics and in the emotionalism that bursts through his cleverness, more now than ever.

Taking on these influences, Stevens doesn’t abandon himself. This Christian is still worried about faith and morality, sex and loss: the big things, written small. Unlike Royal Robertson, whose bright forms often convey wrath and despair, Sufjan Stevens still believes that human connection offers hope. His best strategy, often taken on “The Age of Adz,” is to speak directly and with warmth through his music’s beautiful din.

-- Ann Powers

Sufjan Stevens
“The Age of Adz”
Asthmatic Kitty
Three and a half stars