Those who found Sufjan Stevens at his most engaging in his electronic-oriented, Age of Adz phase, as I somehow did, will be happy to see the idiosyncratic musical auteur back in a similar sonic setting on his new album, The Ascension. The two albums may have little in common attitudinally, but I don’t pretend to pay extra close attention to lyrics, especially when they are as generally inscrutable as Stevens’ output. It’s the sound I’m absorbing, a sound I consider more appealing somehow than the chamber pop pastiche of his acclaimed earlier albums. Apparently The Ascension‘s aural landscape was rooted in the reality of his having to put most of his musical equipment in storage after getting kicked out of his Brooklyn apartment. Lemons from lemonade in this case.
I do however heed lyrics broadly enough to understand that Stevens has over the course of the century managed to morph from something of a wide-eyed, naive mystic into someone who sees the world with the veils removed. Here in the insistent-sounding “Video Game” he seems to be employing the concept of a video game as a metaphor for our 21st-century focus on surface-level digital interaction and viral popularity. With palpable exasperation, he sings:I don’t wanna play your video game
I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain
I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theater
I don’t wanna play your video game
Musically the song achieves a lot with a relative little. The introduction opens with a plaintive synth riff that’s given space to establish the wistful mood even when the beat kicks in. The beat itself is modest, all but mid-tempo; what propels the song is the double-time melody, with its relentless return to that central conviction: “I don’t wanna play your video game.” Regardless of the song’s actual genesis, one can imagine this born from his having received one too many random inquiries from well-intentioned but intrusive strangers. He has in any case latched onto that corrosive consequence of having transformed ourselves into a culture forever trolling for “likes.” Where in this place is there room for the purely human versus the calculatedly capitalistic? The glee with which so many people have embraced the idea of being a personal brand is discomfiting; as Stevens said in an interview with The Atlantic: “We’ve indulged in the cult of personality so far that we have a TV celebrity for a president.” And we’ve seen where that leads.