Sufjan Stevens: The Ascension review – Reaching for something to believe in

An ambitious protest record that takes his favourite theme – America – to the next level

The Ascension
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Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Genre: Singer / Songwriter
Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Over the years, Sufjan Stevens has explored and expanded upon the mythology of America. Here he interrogates that mythology. The result is a holy trinity of vitality, rigour and joy, a protest record that is pleasingly ambitious. Over 15 songs he asks: is a new America possible?

Difficult emotions are reflected and refracted in impressionistic language and a dizzyingly diverse set of soundscapes, circling back to 2010's Age of Adz and its unbridled sensuality. The Ascension is at the darker end of that logic.

Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse begins with fragmented sighs prefacing an immersive world of dreamy melodies and glitchy drums for a semi-techno gem, which complements the pops and stutters of Lamentations, and Die Happy’s intricate electronica.

He references the cult of personality on the radiantly percussive Video Game, panic spirals in the drone-laden Ativan, and goth-industrial-Prince on Death Star.


There is an R&B flourish inside the coy Sugar, and a melancholy subtlety on Run Away with Me, the aching Tell Me You Love Me and the tender, redemptive Gilgamesh.

The Joan Didion-referencing Goodbye to All That is sorrow amid sleigh bells. The almost-13 minute shapeshifting magnificence of America suggests that Stevens “no longer” believes.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote "there are no second acts in American lives", and yet, at the precipice, Stevens leaves us not with dissolution, but resolution, for a second act to believe in. Exceptional.

Siobhán Kane

Siobhán Kane is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture