Because the Net’s No Bodhi Tree (pt. 3)
This is the third part in a series of posts pleading and playing for a closer look at how being online affects being mindful, where ‘being mindful’ is closely linked to being attentive and not distracted. For the first part, click here. For the second part, click here.
In 2005, Stevens released Illinois, my sure answer to the icebreaker “Best album in last ten years.” Illinois layers allusive (and elusive) lyrics with banjo plucks, hand claps, and choral back ups to fill an ambitious space the scale of Chicago with an aesthetic taste ripe from heaven. (Clearly I’m not one of those Sufjan fans who overstates his talent.)
In The Age Of Adz, the first track—“Futile Devices”—has the same soft voices and banjo plucks of Illinois. However, in the second track—“Too Much”— Stevens opens with a voice so synthesized I have to tab back to make sure Of Montreal is not playing. I like Of Montreal. But I really like Sufjan Stevens. So my face tightens for want of more “Futile Devices”.
But, by the third track—“The Age of Adz”—Stevens, with auto-tune and drum machine, makes clear his intent to remix old devices for the MTV, er, YouTube, er, well, “the age of adz” actually says it best. Stevens’ backing choir remains but now seems to take direction from whatever team lies behind Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. I worry the Stevens of Illinois has slit his wrists before my crying eyes.
So I keep the needle—er, mouse—down for three loops straight, determined to find redemption for my fandom.
I find it.
First in a refrain:
Don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted
Then in a name:
The Age Of Adz.
Why did Stevens title the album “The Age Of Adz”? And why is “adz” pronounced odds? I begin to wonder whether the old Sufjan is still alive, buried beneath a performance piece whose point is that today’s popular music has all the artistry of the “adz” that once only paid for culture but have now become culture. Perhaps Stevens sees his natural voice losing out to auto-tuning admen and he wants to make his audience as aware of the loss as he is. I can see it. I can see Sufjan—prolific to the hilt and just as layered conceptually as musically—throwing an hour and a half of music at a single idea.
I look up the lyrics. As elusive as ever but I see (or, think I see) certain themes come to focus. Themes that confirm and deepen my reading of the album as a prophetic warning against the infinite distractions of our age. Distractions that displace any singular sense of the good life toward which we might consciously, mindfully strive. Now our strivings stay too brief to matter. Now we are tossed back and forth by every wind, every new tab, every new link. Now our lives are left to odds, with no conscious construction.
In “Get Real Get Right”, Stevens sings:
Prophet speak what’s on your mind
You dream of the dark age, you dream of the dark age of your youth
Consider the danger, consider the danger as it moves
I’m primed for a prophetic warning against the dangerous future we’re moving toward, a future contrasted with a dreamy ‘dark age’ of our youth. I continue on my idiosyncratic tracks, thinking the ‘dark age’ refers to the time before the internet, before so many distractions, so many adz. The song is coal for my engine and I become convinced the album’s driving concept is the effects the Net’s constant distractions have not only on our art but, as the song continues, our soul, our sense of self, our ability to focus long enough to ‘get real, get right’:
I know I’ve lost my conscience [consciousness?]
I know I’ve lost my shape
Get real, get right
For you will not be distracted by the signs
Do not be distracted by them
Do yourself a favor and get real
The last track—“Impossible Soul”—is thirty minutes long but broken into four distinct dispensations. Throughout the second part, Stevens again tells us
Don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted
In the third part, Stevens assures us
It’s not so impossible, it’s not so impossible
In the final part, the banjo that began the album comes back, briefly, before the album cuts off. As if to assure us not only that our age of adz can become redeemed and our soul’s focus resurrected but that, with The Age Of Adz, Sufjan put his sounds on culture’s cross to make a prophetic point and that he, too, will be resurrected in his next album.
(And, yes, I did just compare Sufjan Stevens to Jesus Christ. Tongue deep in cheek, of course, as I just wanted to poke fun at all the fandom. That said, thirty loops later, I think The Age Of Adz puts out Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible for my sure answer to the icebreaker “Best album in last five years.”)
To hear Christ reincarnate sing a song from Illinois, click below.
Dan Slanger recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends. He enjoys biking about town. He’s into yoga and meditation and his one big desire is to want what he has. He has an all but aborted blog that, someday, like a Phoenix, will offer more than a post a month.