By: Amanda Alvarez
It’s been five years since Sufjan Steven’s last solo album. I have held my breath waiting for the next one, and it’s finally almost here. The album’s first single has just arrived, though, and I pounced on it the second that I got the chance to listen to it.
In one sentence: it’s good, but I hope it’s the only song of its kind on the album.
Maybe I’m a purist, but I like listening to vocals with little added effects. Considering how raw he sounded throughout 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, or how soothing his bare voice is in tracks like “Casimir Pulaski Day”, I thought it almost wholly unnecessary to have this odd, warbling filter over Stevens’ voice. It pushes his voice in and out of the plane, as if he were dipping in and out of the atmosphere, and adds a lot of echo to create this grandiosity behind his voice and to create a piece that feels like it’s surrounding the listener on all sides. That’s already accomplished by the backing track, though, and distorting Steven’s voice takes it a bit too far and makes the piece slightly monotone.
However, that isn’t to say that I don’t adore what’s going on behind the vocals. America sounds like Stevens taking notes from Aporia and transforming them into a new, incredibly layered concept. The beat takes off with a glittery rush, the hi-hats dissolve into the crackly fizzle of a tiny firework, and then the hi-hats return with the hint of glitter.
These synthy, floating twirls accompany a sensually religious verse, where Stevens likens himself to a “Judas in heat”. Some of the lyrics are subtle and flash some of Stevens poetic quality, one of my personal favorites being “The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia”. His comparison of the Holy Ghost to a product of paranoia seals the Judas idea, as well as the feeling that Stevens has a simultaneously guilty and victimized conscience. Stevens has a way of weaving images of unrequited love and yearning with the side of Catholicism that relished in the ecstasy of pain. He does exactly that by speaking of tasting the blood of who I assume is his version of Christ and further expounding on what battered conditions he’s in. He’s not blameless and he knows it, yet deflects his own guilt to avoid it.
The synthesized guitar near the end of the track echoes his Planetarium album, while the pure experimentation and layering throughout feels like the vestiges of the jam sessions that birthed Aporia. Stevens still holds onto this grand amount of space in his music, creating such a sonically large composition that his sound fills up the space beyond whatever room you’re occupying and takes it over. This is not the intimate, stripped-down Stevens that we last heard.
While I do enjoy “America” and will most likely continue to enjoy whatever Stevens puts out in September, I hope he returns to the vocal simplicity that I have known and loved. Stevens’ voice stands best on its own; it’s a treat to hear his quiet sincerity shine through without any obvious changes done to the voice. Lyrics are better understood and messages are clearer sent when he does this. So while I enjoyed it, I hope the rest of his album is a flaunting of his voice and the brutal sense of care and honesty behind it, not the obfuscation of it.
Stream “America” below! Leave a comment on what you thought about the song!
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