In 2012, Sufjan Stevens released a cover of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Far from the reverent, vampy and vocally pyrotechnic renditions that ritualistically precede American sporting events, Stevens' version was instead muted and ominous. He had rewritten the leaping melody into something more straightforward, which is not as sacrilegious as it might seem: The song we so readily attribute to Francis Scott Key was, in fact, not an original musical composition but rather a poem he set to the tune of an existing melody, "The Anacreontic Song," a late-18th century ode to a British gentlemen's club. The dulcet, ASMR tones of Stevens' voice, though, made those mechanically familiar words — gleaming, ramparts, o'er — sound newly strange. Towards the end, in the place where another kind of singer might garner applause for showily nailing that high note, Stevens instead inserted a new verse that he had written himself:
And the flag marked with blood
The blood of our hands
And our hands marked with death
With the blood of a man
And a man on the cross
And the cross on our hearts
Has it done nothing more
Than to drive us apart?
Stevens released this disquieting cover on a day for which plenty of people are currently nostalgic: Nov. 6, 2012, the date of Barack Obama's reelection. Joy and #hope were in the air, but Stevens — a beloved indie musician who'd once pledged allegiance to the ambitious goal of making a record about each of the 50 states — smelled blood. His anthem ends with a haunting, dissonant chord, held for a few extra measures. It now feels like a harbinger, not only of the future of Stevens' increasingly uncompromising musical vision, but of where the rest of us were headed, too.
This past July, several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Stevens released a sprawling, twelve-minute song called "America." He had actually written it in 2014, while working on his previous solo album, the wrenching Carrie & Lowell, but its sweeping scope and foreboding tone threatened to overwhelm that record's pointed, delicately wrought intimacy. But "America," the best and most barbed song he's released in the past five years, fits much better as the closing track of Stevens' new album, The Ascension, an 80-minute meditation that revisits nearly every one of the grand themes he has explored during his two-decade career: Love, death, faith, desire, place, country, apocalypse, resurrection.
"Don't do to me what you did to America," Stevens repeats over a dark synth-scape that smolders like a brushfire. Though only nine words, it's a remarkably spacious lyric, evocative enough to apply to a whole spectrum of experiences, from personal heartache to global, ecological collapse. "I have loved you, I have grieved," he sings, ostensibly to his country, "I'm ashamed to admit I no longer believe." The song reminds me of that desperate opening line of Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem "America," if only because just about everything does these days:
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
Sufjan Stevens has given America two great, meticulous concept albums: Michigan, his breakout 2003 ode to his birth state, and his 2005 epic Illinois, which Metacritic calculates to be the best-reviewed album of that year. And while plenty of fans still clamor for 48 more offerings, a decade and a half after Illinois it now feels like time to accept that Stevens will never get around to finishing (or perhaps even revisiting) the so-called Fifty States Project. As early as 2009, he was already admitting it was a "gimmick": As he told Paste that year, "The whole premise [to record an album for each state] was such a joke, and I think maybe I took it too seriously."
Stevens has always had a ringleader's flair for spectacle, which set him apart from countless other (and less talented) sad-voiced men with banjos and acoustic guitars: He's performed in swan's wings, a University of Illinois cheerleader costume, and well, whatever's going on here. But the flip side of this vivid visual style is that it has sometimes threatened to define him too completely. It is still difficult for many people to shake the image that Stevens presented early in his career — that of a peppy, National-Park-sanctioned tour guide racking up state facts with the wholesome, crafty zeal of an overachieving Boy Scout. Still, even on the records that earned him that reputation, Stevens was already reckoning pointedly with American darkness and the spiritual failings of late capitalism.
"Live in America with a pair of Payless shoes," he sang on Michigan's quietly devastating "The Upper Peninsula." "I've seen my wife at the K-Mart, in strange ideas we live apart." On his next state album, cheerful invitations to "feel the Illinoise!" intermingled with songs about cancer, laborers' plights and, most infamously, a jarringly empathic reflection on the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. "I felt like all of the information I had gleaned was really optimistic," he said at the time, of his extensive Illinois research. In Gacy, he said, "I wanted to develop a story for a character that went against all of these other themes."
Between the two towering state albums, in 2004, Stevens released his first deviation from the project, the sparse, gorgeous Seven Swans. Several songs on Michigan had addressed God and Christianity, but Stevens was not yet a known quantity, so critics didn't necessarily take his every lyric to be autobiographical. Seven Swans, though, doubled down. It was a prolonged and strikingly personal meditation on faith: "To Be Alone With You" was a passionate reflection on Jesus's sacrifice; the title track conjured the apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Ever a champion of outsider artists, Stevens' work has never quite felt in step with the times, which I mean as a compliment; he has never reminded me of any contemporary songwriter so much as he does the brilliant, tragic 1970s folk musician Judee Sill, who sang about Jesus in the same breath as the astral plane and saw God equally in Bach, drugs and outer space. And so, in the middle of the George W. Bush era, when faith and American patriotism were often presented as with-us-or-against-us doctrines, Stevens' earnest religious conviction was treated as a novel curiosity, if not a troubling liability to his indie-cool credentials. Reviews of Seven Swans were also positive, but nearly every one of them made a point of praising it for steering clear of didacticism. Pitchfork's 8.1 review noted that the album succeeded "because Sufjan rarely steps foot in the excess of pedantic preaching," while the AV Club concurred that the songs, thankfully, felt "more exploratory than preachy."
But with The Ascension, 45-year-old Stevens — defiantly — is ready to preach. "I think I've earned the right to be didactic[,]" Stevens told The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber in a recent interview. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and how many songs have I written about my own personal grievances [with] judgement against myself, self-deprecation, and sorrow?" He added, speaking of "America," "I want to write a song that is casting judgment against the world."
If the assorted singles he has released in the past five years — a crowd-pleasing, surprisingly stirring ode to Tonya Harding; a pair of tender ballads he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name, one of which earned him an Oscar nomination — did not exactly foretell this prickly change in tone, his blog certainly did. Since Trump's election, Stevens has occasionally posted what one writer called "mini Tumblr sermons," the most explicit statements of faith he's ever made publicly. In one of them, which in 2017 was re-published as an op-ed in the Washington Post, he exhorted, "You cannot pledge allegiance to a nation state and its flag in the name of God, for God has no political boundary. God is love, period. God is universal, nameless, faceless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love."
The song on Carrie & Lowell that has most frequently ruined my eye makeup also disguises its intentions with a benignly American title: "Fourth of July." Like much of that record, the song is actually about his mother's 2012 death from stomach cancer: "It was night when you died, my firefly," he sings in a lilt that showcases his easy gift for exquisite melody. Throughout the rest of the song, mother and son trade a series of pet names, as if they are constantly trying and inevitably failing to invent new ways to describe the shape-shifting complexity of their love: "my little dove," "my little hawk," "my little Versailles," "my dragonfly."
For all of the new album's doom-saying, love is perhaps the most frequently recurring theme on The Ascension; "I'll show you rapture, a new horizon," Stevens beckons on the glistening, glacial "Run Away With Me," "Follow me to life and love within." Sometimes the love in question is decidedly more carnal, even humorously so: "At the risk of sounding like a Confucian," Stevens sings on the surging highlight "Landslide," "I saw your body and I saw what I liked." The kinetic single "Sugar" is even more straightforward in its expression of desire: "Now that it's a quarter to ten, come on baby give me some sugar."
Sonically, The Ascension shares some of its DNA with Stevens' colorful, synth-driven 2010 release The Age of Adz; the kitschy "Death Star" and the rollicking "Goodbye to All That" in particular would make sense on that record. But there's a mature moodiness and an unflinching introspection here that also feels informed by the aftermath of Carrie & Lowell. "Ativan" is a piercing, warts-and-then-some trip through withdrawal sickness; the sublime penultimate track "The Ascension" feels like eavesdropping on a churchgoer's murmured penance. "Let the record show what I couldn't quite confess," Stevens sings in a bright, quavering voice. "For by living for myself I was living for unrest."
In that Atlantic interview, Kornhaber asked Stevens if "America" — a song in which Stevens sings, "I'm ashamed to admit I no longer believe" — is actually "about Stevens breaking up with God." Not at all, Stevens insists: It is about "[my] crisis of faith about my identity as an American, and about my relationship to our culture, which I think is really diseased right now." The point is how easy it is for some listeners to hear the divine in any of his proclamations. Whether what he's professing is sacred or profane, Stevens very often feels like the protector of a faint, still-flickering flame — the type of feeling so often snuffed out by the cruel bluster of American culture.
A popular Facebook group (59,000 followers and counting) first asked a question that's since become something of a meme, "Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God?" That's funny, sure, but it also captures something unique about the power of Stevens' music, which at its best is able to depict a quality of devotion so pure and overwhelming that it easily transcends the arbitrary divisions we create between certain forms of love. Maybe you love your partner, or your maker, or your best friend, or your country, or your mom, or your dog, or yourself. Stevens' music delivers the jolt of encountering this life force in its raw, factory-unprocessed form and realizing there is not all that much difference between its seemingly competing varieties. To quote another phrase that's become as rote as the "Star-Spangled Banner," and which Stevens' music asks us to interrogate anew: Love is love.
And of course, sometimes tough love is the most potent variety. America isn't the easiest thing to feel affection for these days, with its heated divisions, systemic injustices and inhumane institutions. Maybe this flawed country never deserved 48 more albums. But, concedes our tireless and newly emboldened street preacher on The Ascension, she's at the very least worthy of an epic swan song.