Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

If there is one thing I’ve come to learn about Sufjan Stevens it’s that you must never expect what you believe you should expect, but rather brace yourself for the distinct possibility of something quite unexpected.

Certainly, of late, Stevens work has been a refreshing progression and a complete masterclass in diversity, without ever losing identity.  I’ve written on this blog before about the importance of pushing yourself as an artist.  Of attempting to work with new technologies, new instruments.  Of stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself as a musician and I think, no matter what you think of Sufjan Stevens, he is one artist who is not afraid to test himself and embrace the tools at his disposal in this modern world.

The BQE, Stevens last release, was a completely lovely record but its importance was lost on many simply because the vocal element had been removed and possibly because it was, in truth, an ode to a road!  That said, were you to turn it on and listen to it, it really is obviously the work of Stevens.  The flowery orchestration,  the over the top theatrics of the work couldn’t be anyone else, and I would argue that the same applies to this record.  Put simply, I love this.  Whilst I won’t argue that this is anywhere near his best work to date, it does contain some tunes right up there with anything he’s done previously.

Electronic beats are not something you’d associate with his previous work, granted.  However, once again the songwriting on this record is simply stunning, something that should come as much of a surprise to those familiar with his work.  Stevens creative output is really extraordinary actually when you think about it.  ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise’ really was a gorgeous record.  ‘The Avalanche’ – an out takes and B-sides record from the same sessions, was equally amazing.  I think this totalled about 40 tunes in all.  Incredible.

Personally, I’m delighted that he keeps pushing the boundaries, keeps challenging himself, keeps producing records that, whilst retaining the Sufjan Stevens(ness) actually incorporate new ideas, new ways of working, new technology to create something totally different from what came before.  It’s basically Sufjan Stevens, just dressed up in a different and more interesting way than the last time out.

The record doesn’t start with anything to surprising or challenging as ‘Futile Devices’ sounds like it could have been taken straight from ‘Seven Swans’, but when ‘Too Much’ kicks in, it’s time for things to get interesting.  As the album progresses, the flamboyant Stevens that I’ve grown to know and love is in full force.  The theatrical nature of previous outings is in evidence without question.  Sure, there might be a lot more clicks and bleeps and noise and weirdness, but essentially, this is just Sufjan Stevens at his most creative and exciting.  For me, it’s a great change of pace.  It’s not too confusing and it clearly retains his identity whilst placing a marker down as to where he can go next.

Let’s face facts.  Radiohead did it.  With Kid A, they fucked with their sound.  At the time, many peoples gut reaction was to criticise or be confused as to why they never made another OK Computer.  I expect there will be a lack of understanding about this record.  I expect people will listen and be confused.  For me, it’s perfectly clear.  This is one of our generations most important and inspiring musicians pushing himself and challenging his established sound without losing his identity in the process.  Not only do I admire this record, but I actually love it.  I think it’s brilliant.  It’s a complex, compelling listen and, if you give it time, you will be rewarded over an over again.  I’d love to go through each track one by one but for me ‘I Want To Be Well’ and ‘Impossible Soul’ are stand outs.

Sufjan Stevens never seems to disappoint me.  This, like his previous work, is dense, it’s complex and it’s intelligent and it leaves me wondering just where the man can go next.  I can’t wait to find out.  Check out his work here.  Enjoy.

The Phantom Band – The Wants

Imaginative, creative, diverse, interesting, quirky, and many, many more adjectives could be used to describe the debut record ‘Checkmate Savage’ from The Phantom Band.  ‘The Wants’, their follow up, continues in the same vein and confirms The Phantom Band as one of the most interesting and imaginative bands in Scotland and possibly the UK at the moment.

I’m sure there will be many people left disappointed by this record, mainly because they will assess it solely against its predecessor.  It’s the old problem of the difficult second record I guess, especially when your first was critically acclaimed in your own country.  Those who loved the debut will undoubtedly have grumbles about this record not being anything particularly different or challenging or the usual “yadda, yadda, yadda.”   Me personally, I loved the first record and I think this record is brilliant also.  It’s refreshing and it hits the mark in a year where records that I have hoped and expected to be great have left me, for the most part, hugely disappointed.   I completely believe that artists should evolve and grow.  I think change is good.  I think challenging your established sound and principles is a good thing.  I think stepping out of your comfort zone as a musician is essential.  However, for a band like the Phantom Band, who have only one record to their name prior to this and are only just establishing a following/fanbase, I see no need to dramatically change what they do at this stage.   Often, listening to people too much is as dangerous as not listening at all and what you end up with is a band that loses all the things that made them so good in the first place.  For me, The Phantom Band have got it spot on and this album is packed with more ideas and creativity within the first two tracks than most artists out there manage in a whole record.  So I won’t grumble about this record because quite frankly it’s brilliant.

Tracks like ‘The Glamour’, ‘O’ and ‘The Walls’ are real stand outs for me, but the band are equally as good at quiet and interesting as they are at big ballsy, bluesy riffs that drive this dark affair onwards.  This is perfectly highlighted on tracks like ‘Everybody Knows It’s True’ and ‘The None Of One.’  There is a definite folk sensibility to the Phantom Band.  It’s in there underneath all the madness and it holds the record together beautifully.  These tracks for me all stand alone with confidence but come together to create another quality piece of music from start to finish.

If I’m perfectly honest, I think ‘The Wants’ is a step forward from the debut album.  It’s stronger in terms of songs and structure and I personally like it more as well.  It connects more instantly whilst retaining the identity of the band created by their debut, something which I think shows a maturity in the band.  One thing is for sure, it once again showcases The Phantom Band as one of Scotland’s most exciting new artists.  A band we can truly be proud of and should shout about loudly.  Hopefully ‘The Wants’ will bring them the full on success that ‘Checkmate Savage’ warrented.  If this one goes unnoticed worldwide it will be a tragedy.  Spread the word.  Check out The Phantom Band here.  Enjoy.