“I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus,” Sufjan Stevens declares deadpan on Video Game, a single from his forthcoming album, The Ascension, and the scene is set. Who knew that synthpop could cut to the quick so efficiently? And with Renegade dance creator Jalaiah Harmon anchoring the accompanying video, it seems that all bets are off (yet again) when it comes to predicting the shape of Stevens’s musical preoccupations.
The Ascension, his eighth solo studio album, follows the widely acclaimed Carrie & Lowell (2015). His album preoccupations have been coloured by geography (Illinois, Michigan), and shot through with religious iconography and interrogations of love in all its unpredictable poses. His side projects have included Mystery of Love, composed for the soundtrack of the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, and The Decalogue, a ballet score choreographed by Justin Peck.
So a lot has happened since the much-admired Carrie & Lowell, and these days the Stevens gaze is firmly trained on the wider horizon.
“This is the first time I’ve felt the need to speak very clearly and coherently about how I feel about about our present circumstances,” he admits, on the phone from his home in the Catskills in upstate New York, where he moved just over a year ago after over two decades living in New York City.
Although he began working on the album over two years ago, it was his newly built home studio in the Catskills that played midwife to this 15-song cycle, which holds a mirror up to the chaos that has defined the US over the past four years.
The beating heart of this new collection is America, a 12-minute epic meditation on the sense of impending doom that defines his home place. What started out as a simple folk outtake from Carrie & Lowell has morphed into a seething commentary on life as he knows it – now.
“It was a very simple folk song and it didn’t really align with the aesthetic of Carrie & Lowell so I shelved it, and I didn’t really understand what the song was about: the tone of it felt really foreign and unfamiliar to me. But then, as the cultural and political climate in America began to change, I began to feel like that there was a sensibility in that song that was actually quite relevant. There was a voice within it that I needed to embody, so I rerecorded it and it became a template for the rest of the album.
“I decided to eradicate anything personal or autobiographical. I didn’t want to write songs that had narratives, that had any histories or geographies or place names. And I didn’t want to sing about myself.
“I wanted to respond to larger constructs and concepts,” Stevens continues, “and respond directly to the world in which I live, which is drastically transforming. It wasn’t a decision I made. It felt more like a calling. I really felt called upon to speak for the issues in our society, and I’ve never felt that before. I’ve always felt a freedom in creating whatever I’ve wanted to. I think my work is anachronistic in that way: not necessarily rooted in the conversations of that time.”
The song America is anchored by an ominous coda: pitch perfectly capturing the sinister social and political climate that prevails as the US snakes its way towards November’s election. Does Stevens feel that there’s been a dearth of artistic responses to the path his home country has found itself on over the past four years?
“Well, the new Bob Dylan record is speaking to some of this,” Sufjan offers. “I think it’s the nature of our culture now to be self-absorbed. That’s also at the crux of the problem. We didn’t just wake up with a celebrity president. It’s actually something that was cultivated, celebrated and supported by the culture.
“It’s funny, but I don’t find myself feeling any kind of responsibility to the world, or my listeners or to any kind of an audience. I like to think that I work in a vacuum, in isolation, and I’ve always assumed that my only responsibility is to myself. Yet a lot of my work has been about speaking to higher truths, and I like to think that I choose to write on the themes of understanding and respect and self-awareness.”
In order for me to deal with the universal and social problems, I needed to do a lot of investigating of myself, my behaviours and perspectives
Stevens is no stranger to themes of self-examination, identity and the forces that define him. But the time has come to move on, he admits.
“I realised, looking back, that an awful lot of my work is incredibly self-absorbed. It’s about my life, my dreams, my body, my sensations. I think that’s natural because we are contained in these biological vessels, but I do think at some point I just got tired of my own narrative. I got tired of my own voice and got tired of hearing my own personal grievances in songwriting.
“I think I woke up one day and realised my problems weren’t personal any more,” he continues, warming to the subject. “And in order for me to deal with the universal and social problems, I needed to do a lot of investigating of myself, my behaviours and perspectives. I think it was a natural evolution of consciousness for me and a shift in the way I perceive my work, and I think it was really intentional.
“In the past I never felt I had licence to, and I’ve always been very careful not to be political. I felt like I needed to stay out of the conversation, but this is the first time that I felt like I had to do it. It was like it was my duty, part of my job description now.”
Religious references have long peppered Stevens’s work. The Ascension is no exception, in title or content.
“This whole record is playing around with religious imagery and iconography”, he agrees. “I’m always appropriating the language of the Bible in my work, but the Ascension for me was an interesting concept, because it recognises the transformation of the spirit. I felt like it represented a blueprint for how to manage the issues around me, and that that was to not struggle within them, but to transcend them in a way, or to ascend above them.
“I think what it’s indicating is a higher spiritual consciousness. What if we can deal with these problems, not from within the way they’re constructed, but from without the system? Obviously the Ascension is a biblical narrative, Jesus ascending into heaven, but for me it’s about ascending the bullshit, you know?”
Songs that touch on the current tsunami of self-medication, of escapism, of an abdication of ownership of our own life decisions are all to be found on The Ascension. “In a way I wanna be my own redeemer,” Stevens sings on Video Game in that quiet but insistent voice that is his and his alone.
“We’re definitely living with the opioid crisis, in which people clearly don’t have the constitution to deal with the crises around them,” he says. “I think that a lot of substance abuse is clearly not about the person but about the prescription industry here, which is really corrupt. It’s really devastating. I don’t pass any judgment on anyone who needs a little help to get through the day; I’m on a healthy dose of serotonin myself. But I think a lot of these songs are summaries of or prescriptions for survival in a time of crisis.”
And of his fans who may be puzzled at this change of perspective?
“Some of this might come across as me being self-righteous or angry,” Sufjan acknowledges, “and I’m sure some people would rather their art be soft, and serve the purpose of escapism. There’s a time and place for that, but that’s not my job right now.”
His own prescriptions for living can be boiled down to a few key principles – for now at least, Stevens believes.
“I think the lesson here for all of us is don’t get attached to outcomes,” he muses. “Reduce your expectations, and be mindful of your mental health. In terms of responsibility, we should all just work on what’s within reach, within us and around us. Focus on the task in front of you: what’s working, what’s pure and what’s sustainable.
“I think that’s a really good lesson.”
The Ascension is out now through Asthmatic Kitty