Beer and Pavement

Freshness Matters

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Records, Rock vs. Beer by SM on November 12, 2010

In both beer and music, freshness matters. As a hophead, I understand that the fresher the beer (particularly IPA’s and DIPA’s) the better it is. You can smell the hops. The citrus and pine flavors really stand out. In the case of music, the latest album often feels like the best until the newness rubs off[1]. Even better is a new album from an old favorite, especially when the musician is trying a new direction.

A fellow beer enthusiast returned from a trip to Minneapolis with a four-pack of Surly Furious for me. These beers come in cans, meaning that their freshness stays locked in for a long time as virtually no air nor light can ruin the beer. I was excited to get another taste of this particular beer[2], but my middle-man had me even more excited when he informed me the beer was merely three weeks old. Now, that’s fresh.

Furious is about as good an IPA you’ll find. Citrus. Pine. Caramel. Malt. That’s probably all you need to know. If one needed a perfect or near-perfect example of an American IPA, look no further than Furious. It’s good to know that brewers in the Midwest continually hold their own versus the much more glorified West Coast hop bombs[3]. I’m sure it helped that the beer is so fresh. I’m curious as to how long it will last around here. Luckily, I have other beers to drink…

Fall is a time when many breweries come out with their freshly hopped harvest ales. They buy loads of fresh hops from the fall harvest to make one-off or seasonal brews whose hop characters vary from year to year. One of my favorite harvest ales is the one produced by another Midwest brewery: Founders. Founders Harvest Ale is yet another monster of a hop bomb. FHA doesn’t contain the same blast of Simcoe aroma Furious unleashed from its can, but it did satisfy the nose the way a nice IPA should…Of course, it’s just an APA. This beer is easily in Alpha King territory[4] when it comes to an overwhelming hop presence for an American Pale Ale. Again, the freshness of this beer is felt and one can fully appreciate the full 70 IBU’s[5], realizing that this beer will be gone soon when the winter winds come and I empty my cellar.

These two beers present the ideal of freshness as something new and at its peak aesthetic potential. Another kind of freshness might apply to a new and challenging idea or concept. An artist might create something never seen or heard before, at least not by him/her previously. When an artist switches direction and tries something new, it is even more challenging as the artist has created a following with an established aesthetic, choosing now to throw that niche to the wolves in favor of fresh material.

Sufjan Stevens did this. Long gone are albums about states (Midwestern ones at that). The orchestral pop with ambivalent religious messages are no longer as prevalent as they once were. Abnormally long song titles even fail to make an appearance in the liner notes. Sufjan is going for a fresh start and it sounds like The Age of Adz.

And unlike fresh beer, no one knows what to make of Sufjan Stevens’ fresh offering. However, like the freshest IPA, the freshness of Stevens’ material ignites the senses and makes you aware of opinion, emotions, etc.

The imagery on the album is particularly perplexing. Strange sci-fi images with even stranger messages written throughout the artwork elude to something sinister yet beautiful inside[6]. When I look at the packaging for the beers, they give completely different messages. Furious is a fiery, slick can and its Founders counterpart provides an image of the freshly harvested hops contributing to the flavor and aroma. However, all the images are robust and full of meaning and life. All three are a lot to take in and their packages hint at this headiness.

How is The Age of Adz fresh?

Say goodbye to traditional, pop orchestral arrangements – those created by humans and analogue in nature – and hello
to blips, bleeps, and mashed up sounds. However, once the listener gets past the striking change in aesthetic, he realizes this electronic noise is delicately arranged and as orchestral as anything he’s ever done. It’s also intricately weaved with more familiar Stevens’ fair[7].

Say goodbye to Sufjan’s trademark falsetto, or at least for the most part. In fact, Stevens shows incredible range and control of his voice, jumping from octave to octave, utilizing his voice as an instrument in a way few can match. It’s not so much that the whispers and elevated notes of his past performances is gone; there is more range and complexity to his vocal work. Adz showcases an incredible vocal talent, rarely recognized[8] and even less often imitated.

At first, the musical arrangements and electronic noise is off-putting. It’s annoying, almost disappointing in its obvious nod to current musical trends[9]. Hell, he uses auto-tune in the album’s 20-minute long closer[10]. Then, you pay attention to the music and find that the electronic masturbation is purposeful and subtle. As with all Sufjan Stevens albums, he’s so careful in crafting an exact-sounding album that doesn’t stray from the core but expands upon itself with each advancing track.

Now that he’s free from the fifty states project and the need to experiment, Stevens has written a record focused on himself. One probably shouldn’t read too much into some of the lyrics[11], but he very obviously seems to have turned the songwriter’s lens on himself in creating some of his most engaging songs to date. The songs don’t seem to have anything to do with the others, but that works, which must be a relief for a guy who once thought writing an album for each state would be a good idea[12].

How did he get here from those highly conceptualized, state-themed records to this electronic mish-mash of personal tracks? The evidence is there throughout Stevens’ catalog and life. Had he released a complete album mixing the best tracks from his first two efforts (A Sun Came, Enjoy Your Rabbit) The Age of Adz would seem a perfect follow-up. Of course, the orchestration and subtlety of his state albums help set up the intricacies found in this latest effort. Much the same way these works create a base for The Age of Adz to stand, The BQE[13] and All Delighted People EP bridge the gap in their incomplete and perplexing results. Stevens’ strangely religious Michigan upbringing, Brooklynite hipster status, and the time he had to give up music due to a viral infection helped create the uneasiness, introspection, and dramatics of this album.

This is Sufjan Stevens’ Odelay. Like Beck, Stephens was pigeon-holed with an early hit. For Beck, it was Mellow Gold with its infectious “Loser”. In Stevens’ case, his hit came later in the form of Come On Feel the Illinoise, featuring the brilliant “Chicago”. Both artists diverged only to collect the pieces that would become uniquely magnificent long-play records. Beck’s was Odelay; Sufjan’s is The Age of Adz.

Is it fresh? Hell yeah! Like the beers mentioned above? Sort of.

Freshness breaths life into its consumer. The Simcoe on the nose as I poured the Furious or the sharp bitterness on the back tongue caused by every mouthful of the Harvest Ale enlivened my senses. Left out was my sense of hearing, until I put on The Age of Adz. Ever since, I’ve been pouring over every detail of the record, trying to get a grasp on what Sufjan Stevens has done here. And every time, I get something different[14].

I don’t know that this post on freshness does either beer or album any justice, but I cannot put into words how these sorts of experiences help me freshen my perspective. The change of season, a new flavor or smell, something that catches my eye for the first time… Experiencing something new and fresh helps us get up in the morning. Great craft beer and a new record does that for me (along with the many new things my daughter discovers on a daily basis, of course).

The important thing to walk away with is that freshness matters. It’s what sustains us, motivates us. That’s probably why I still buy records and have to have the newest beers. When the freshness dies, things go stale, become inconsumable. So, we go out looking for more. I found two beers and a record that are fresh, fresh enough to satisfy me…for now.

1Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Then you’re talking about a classic, desert island kind of record.
2I say this because it’s a rare occasion when I can enjoy some Surly and even rarer when I actually possess my own cans as Surly is canned in Minnesota and only sold in a few other states, not including Missouri.
3It’s been suggested to me that Midwest brewers brew IPA’s and DIPA’s that better represent hops than their Northwest counterparts. The person who suggested this blasphemous idea is from Seattle. So, there’s that.
4For the craft beer noobie, Alpha King is largely considered to be the best APA on the market, produced by possibly the best brewery in the world: Three Floyds. So, to say that Founders’ Harvest Ale is in the same class is a huge compliment.
5That’s huge for a pale ale. Of course, this is an American Pale Ale. Also, the Furious weighs in at a whopping 99 IBU’s. That’s bitter.
6From what I understand, the images are by an outsider artist who creates strange sci-fi images along with semi-literate messages as a sort of social commentary or some shit like that.
7I like my share of blips and bleeps (see Joan of Arc), but I think they’re overused as well (see the last Archers of Loaf record).
8Why isn’t Sufjan Stevens more recognized for his vocal prowess? I have never understood this. Sure, his songcraft and arrangements are second to none, but the most amazing skill he may possess are his vocals.
9How much do you want to bet that Stevens leaves a spot on his already crowded stages for a MacBook or two?
10That final track is more of a 4 or 5 song EP than it is one song. It has definite parts and even pauses. I don’t know what the thinking was for this sort of formatting. I wonder if he didn’t know where to put these tracks individually in the sequence and simply decided to combine them for one epic closer.
11Although I am terrible at picking out lyrics (I often sing made-up lyrics that maybe rhyme or sound similar without much attention to meaning, much like the Japanese), I did make out the chorus directed at Sufjan in “Vesuvius”.
12I still contend that the 50 States Project should live on. Even if he maybe does ten or twenty, the stories found in a state’s history has proven to be pretty remarkable for Sufjan Stevens.
13Aside from the cool comic book included, this was hugely disappointing for me.
14This shouldn’t be so remarkable for such a new album (doubly, since my copy was on backorder), but the new discoveries are striking every time. I imagine finding surprises for a long time with this one.

2 Responses

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  1. Carrie said, on November 12, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I expected to hate Age of the Adz, but in a way it reminded me of how much I’d forgotten about Sufjan, and it reminded me of why I liked him so much way back when.

    I was a pretty fervent fan back in 05-06, but most of his stuff wore out–occasionally I’ll listen to “Super Sexy Woman” or an acoustic banjo demo of “Vito’s Ordination Song” (a song I once, quite pathetically, listened to on repeat for over a week straight).

    I think for a period there he kind of got trapped into the same sort of songwriting–and that was part of the entrapment of the alleged 50 states project, which I’m actually kind of glad he abandoned–it was charming for 2 albums, but for 50 hypereducational “figure out the historical references” songs full of overly grandiose arrangments I don’t think I would be on board. I know he got really really sick too, but I think he really benefited from a significant amount of time off.

    Is it his Odelay? Sure, he seems to be heading off in a different direction that is more polished an more focused than past works.

    I’ve always thought Sufjan’s voice was one of his best assets, too. It’s one of the most endearing, soothing voices I’ve heard. His timbre is perfect for the kind of music he makes.

  2. […] Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz is all I listen to at the moment. For that reason, it deserves consideration. Also for that reason, I need to step away to see if I’ll feel that way forever. […]

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