Thesis: "Words are futile devices."
Plot: Sufjan Stevens finds his passion.
The Age of Adz is built on every sound having multiple meanings; he begins with the title, "Futile Devices".
When you approach each song title, ask yourself why he chose those few words. Note that none of the song titles on this album are long-winded: there are no spiels like "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis In the Great Godfrey Maze" (Illinois, 2005) or "The Vivian Girls Are Visited In the Night By Saint Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies" (The Avalanche, 2006). These titles were Sufjan's delusions of grandeur; they represent his unfettered ambition at the time, his grandiose quest to chronicle all fifty states. And that's exactly it: his entire fanbase bought into it. They appealed for him to come to their state, for him to chronicle the unique experiences that they had to offer. In achieving Greatness, he promised the world something he did could not give; and the world not only believed him, but also accepted it coolly when he revealed the Fifty States Project was defunct. No one truly believed he would make fifty albums; but he told us he would, and he was Great enough for it to be possible. The Age of Adz is in part a self-criticism: he, like Royal Robertson, was told he was a God and, at a loss for any evidence to prove otherwise, began to believe it.
In the case of the first track, the title, "Futile Devices," is Sufjan's way of telling you how to read his story. He will recount you as best he can what is happening, but the listener must acknowledge that words cannot accurately describe reality; nothing can. Art is merely a shadow of experience, but it can never replicate it. Sufjan tried; he became a historian of General Casimir Pulaski and Saul Bellow and Jane Margaret Byrne and Adlai Stevenson, but these were just names from a past he had never experienced himself. Words are futile devices, but they're the only way he can tell you any story at all.
Sound-wise, it is the only song of its kind on the album; the unique metronomic tranquility is not revisited until the final movement in "Impossible Soul". Sufjan at the beginning of this tale is calm: he is in love, with the sound of the guitar strings buzzing under his fingers, in love with his ability. He is proud of what his hands can do and create, and how this creation feels.
He is unsure of himself, self-doubting, preferring not to stay very long with his newfound passion despite the fact that it is the life he needed all along. Sufjan compares it to a brother: this is the first sign of an inner schism. He is beginning to split into two people inside one body. He acknowledges this sounds dumb, because it does not seem logical: it does not make sense to think of the artist side of you as a separate person, as a brother. He is not two people, and he knows this; regardless, it is the most apt way to describe how he feels. Words are still futile devices.
The beauty of the song lies in its apparent untarnished innocence, despite its foreshadowing of the mistakes Sufjan will first make in his relationship with himself, the mistakes that will lead to his downfall. He does not want the life he has found; he needs it, he is dependent. It makes him feel safe; he can cover himself up in blankets on the couch and watch from afar as his hands create what the world seems to want from him.
(Note that early in the song he does not say, "I do love you;" he says, "I do," and "Love you." The former is a description of his life: he does. He does but he does not know how, or why, but he does. He creates. The latter is a command to himself: "Love you." He is ordering himself to love this part of him that he does not yet understand. The two lines are also a back-and-forth between the two burgeoning parts of himself: the artist Sufjan says, "I create," and the human Sufjan responds, "I love you for that," even if he does not know why.)
Although there is not much lyrically or aurally (in this song) to back me up on this, "Futile Devices" also may be the first allusion to the album's criticism of technology. We can imagine an Eden without language, without knowledge; however, the moment language is introduced, discourse is possible. Everything becomes meaningful and charged with the potential for technological advancement (for what is technology but the act of man using his surroundings to make the physical world work differently than it does naturally in a non-human state). At the same time, the introduction of language means that the visceral experience of life loses its beauty; it becomes possible to describe your vision of grass or a tree regardless of whether or not it actually represents the reality of the grass or tree, which can only be known truly by personal inspection (and even then, it is still a perception which varies from person to person). Words are simply tools of technology, and for Sufjan in the song, innovations are ultimately futile devices.