Sufjan Stevens’ new 12-minute single America could not have come at a better time. Arriving amidst a worsening Covid-19 pandemic in the US, plus the fervent Black Lives Matter movement (which he has long voiced support for), plus the climate crisis, and not to mention another Trump election campaign as the world watches on in fear and trepidation, it is a protest song for our times.
Dropping on July 3 (the day before Independence Day in the US), this may be a song that’s been in the works since 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, but its message is so of the moment in 2020 that it feels like the most important musical moment of the year to date. Epic enough to carry that weight and lyrically profound in a way that those shaking their heads at the state of the US will identify with wholeheartedly, it’s a masterpiece on first listen that only pulls harder with repeat plays.
“I have loved you, I have grieved/ I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” Stevens laments, before pleading for understanding and compassion in an intolerant age: “Don’t look at me like I’m acting hysterical!” Soaked in his signature religious imagery, the man who once penned albums as love letters to entire US states admits, “I have loved you like a dream/ I have kissed your lips like a Judas in heat,” before later collapsing under that weight: “I am broken, I am beat/ But I will find my way like a Judas in heat”.
Musically it recalls 2010 record The Age of Adz, minus the chaos. Still, the electronic textures, muted beats and swelling arrangement aren’t worlds away from Carrie & Lowell‘s very personal folktronica, and it’ll be interesting to see what direction the rest of the album takes. But there’s no doubting this is a bigger, fuller sound that suggests ambition over introspection.
As an introduction to forthcoming 80-minute opus The Ascension (out September 25), it is at once a promising first taste and a standalone triumph that gives our worst fears and anxieties a voice in a time where even the crisis of climate change seems placed to one side, so dire have things become.