Sufjan Stevens’s “America” is Protest in its Purest Form

Sufjan Stevens’s “America” is Protest in its Purest Form

With the unusual selection of a twelve-minute closing track as his album’s lead single, Sufjan Stevens demonstrates haunting intrigue on his emotive return to solo releases following a five-year hiatus.

“Be part of the solution or get out of the way”, multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens writes in regards to his forthcoming eighth studio album, The Ascension. “My objective for this album was simple: Interrogate the world around you. Question anything that doesn’t hold water.”

A few days prior to the release of his first single, Stevens shared the album artwork and tracklisting for The Ascension, slated for release on September 25th via Asthmatic Kitty. “America”, also the record’s closing track, appropriately arrived the day before the country’s Independence Day, although its sentiments are anything but celebratory. Unsettling vocal harmonies cascade into lush multi-layered synth underscoring a haunting refrain, “Don’t do to me what you did to America”.

“I have loved you, I have grieved
I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe
I have loved you, I received
I have traded my life
For a picture of the scenery
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to America” 

Stevens aptly dubbed this single: “A protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”. The search for the archetypal anger of the “protest song” categorization in “America” is met instead with  caution and mourning. At 12 minutes and 30 seconds in length, there’s even an added air of isolation highlighted by its unrelenting refrain. This comes as a contrast to Stevens’s other discography – he is never one to shy from overreaching the 2-3 minute industry duration standard. Previous examples featured sprawling acoustic instrumentation painting otherworldly soundscapes, emblematic of Stevens’s artistry. On “America”, we’re offered an interpretation that includes the most successful elements of his previous seven albums but with electronic-driven sonics in place of folk composition. It feels assertively colder – worlds away from the warmth and opulent natural landscapes created five years ago on Carrie & Lowell.

The Ascension is slated to be Sufjan Stevens’s first record of his own since the release of Carrie & Lowell back in 2015. Often described as a project of personal reckoning, Carrie & Lowell explores intimate elements of coping and loss, scattered with biblical references celebrating/exploring Stevens’s religious faith. The Ascension presents a perspective turned to a greater universal dread and our collective involvement in that narrative. The dismal sound/character of “America” may seem all too pertinent to our country’s current social and economic climate, but Stevens has indicated that the song was actually written six years ago around the time Carrie & Lowell was in production. It was originally shelved due to its discordancy with the rest of the album, but rediscovered years later. Stevens writes:

“When I dug up the demo a few years later I was shocked by its prescience. I could no longer dismiss it as angry and glib. The song was clearly articulating something prophetic and true, even if I hadn’t been able to identify it at the time. That’s when I saw a clear path toward what I had to do next.”

What Sufjan Stevens is going to do next with his emphatic return to music is the question at the front of our minds. The Ascension promises to be a telling examination of the human condition enhanced by both political assertions and faith-rooted morality, as well as an elaboration of instrumental range deserving of our undivided attention.

Listen below:

Sufjan Stevens - America [Official Audio]

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