By all indications, Sufjan Stevens has done some soul searching in the busy five years since he last released a full-length collection of fresh songs.
His new thing, titled The Age of Adz, is a sharp departure from the acoustic orchestration and church-camp vibe that made him an indie-pop hero. Stevens pulled a Radiohead this time, taking a wide, electronic left turn into something bold and not easily digestible.
Nonetheless, hungry fans snapped up the new album upon its Oct. 12 release, sending Stevens into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time. His current 24-date North American tour, which stops Thursday at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, is mostly sold out. (Another indicator of pent-up demand: Stevens cracked the Top 30 in September with a surprise EP, All Delighted People, that was released only online.)
Based on reports from recent dates, the Adz roadshow is a swirling sensory overload, with projected video and a double-digit band that includes horns, keys, dancing singers and two drummers.
Stevens isn't talking much about the album or the tour, but the few public insights he has offered this fall suggest an emergence from a period of overwork, creative uncertainty and bad health.
"I'd lost my bearings," he told the Irish Times, referring to his exhaustion after creating, presenting and recording The BQE, his odd and elaborate multimedia tribute to New York's Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Speaking recently to the Canadian music website Exclaim.ca, he described a difficult period just last year when he battled "a virus I had that affected my nervous system" and caused chronic pain.
Apparently feeling better now, Stevens is leading his ensemble through two-hour shows that heavily favor the new material, with a sprinkling of older tunes primarily from the acclaimed 2005 album Illinois.
The distinction between the two should be clear. Although The Age of Adz includes some familiar touches – choral and brass arrangements, bird-like woodwind flourishes – it charts a strange new course.
The albumborrows its title and its colorful booklet art from schizophrenic outsider artist Royal Robertson, a now deceased Louisiana personality whose creepy, cartoonish drawings mixed religious themes with sci-fi iconography. The images match the mood of the record, musically and lyrically.
Gone are the research-driven historical travelogues that defined Stevens' previous work. The new lyrics are confessional and impressionistic, suggesting personal crises and spiritual-sexual confusion with a sense of global apocalypse. Often, a vocal phrase is repeated at length as the musical backdrop continuously shifts. Through natural and digital means, he pushes his voice to expressive extremes.
The 75-minute disc opens on a deceptively familiar note with "Futile Devices," a gentle tune that lays Stevens' whispery croon over piano and softly percolating guitars. But the next cut, "Too Much," is an apparent single that encapsulates the new Sufjan sound: glitchy programmed rhythms, shimmering textures, cosmic beeps and boops, and David Byrne-ish non sequiturs that convey more emotion than logic.
The most audacious number is the closing track, a 25-minute epic poem and disco space odyssey called "Impossible Soul." (Yes, 25:35, to be exact, and the band has been playing it live, too.) At one point it builds to a bouncy, life-affirming climax, but then it sputters to a melancholy end: "Boy, we made such a mess together."
Ultimately, The Age of Adz may not be the crowd-pleaser fans were waiting for, but it's an interesting chapter in a story that promises more surprises down the road.