August 27, 2010

All Delighted People EP

Sufjan Stevens (2010, Asthmatic Kitty Records)
All Delighted People EP

Raise your hand if you saw this coming, because I sure didn’t. Earlier this month, Sufjan Stevens announced an October/November tour — an announcement that I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to because he’s not really coming anywhere close to my neck of the woods (and I just don’t have much time for concertgoing these days). And what’s more, I’d become a little Sufjan’d out, particularly after the indulgent BQE.

And then Asthmatic Kitty broke the news: a nearly hour-long EP of brand new material that was free for the listening (and could be had for a nominal fee). The promise of new music from the man was too much to pass up — the old Sufjan fan inside of me dies hard, I guess — and so I hoofed it on over to Bandcamp to check out All Delighted People. And suffice to say, I’m hanging my head in shame, for I should not have let my faith in the man slip. (If that makes me sound like a fanboy, then so be it.)

At first blush, All Delighted People seems like classic Sufjan. It’s sprawling and epic, musically and thematically, but quite poignant and intimate at the same time. However, careful listening will reveal subtle breaks from the Sufjan releases of yore. For starters, the production is thinner in places, even brittle. Sufjan’s inimitable arrangements are compressed and more surface-level, which means the EP sounds more “in your face”, relatively speaking. Which seems apt because musically speaking, this is some of the most adventurous music that Sufjan has put to tape yet.

Gone are most, if not all, of the Nick Drake-isms and Steve Reich-isms that have dominated so much of his music. In its place are atonal string arrangements that sit down uncomfortably next to skronky, skittering electric guitar solos and wobbly electronics, while choirs and Sufjan’s own vocals — which he pushes to new limits — sing lyrics that are, by turns, bleak and deeply comforting.

The EP begins with its namesake, “All Delighted People (Original Version)”, a simultaneous cover and deconstruction of “The Sounds of Silence”. Sufjan turns Simon & Garfunkel’s classic into an eleven-minute manic-depressive piece that swings from post-apocalyptic sentiments to swooning cries of love and adoration before finally settling down somewhere in between.

And the people bowed and prayed
And what difference does it make?
It doesn’t matter anyway
The world surrounds us with its hate

Hello darkness my old friend it breaks my heart
I’ve come to strangle you in spite of what you’d like
And don’t be a rascal, don’t be a laughing dog in spite of odds
All I’m deciphering from the spirits in the light within
All delighted people raise their hands

[...]

And the people bowed and prayed
Oh! I love you a lot
Oh! I love you from the top of my heart
And you can see through my mistakes
Oh! I’ll tell it to you now
Oh! I’ll tell it from the top of my heart

And what difference does it make
If the world is a mess
If the world is a mess?
And on your breast I gently laid
Oh! I’ll tell it to you now
Oh! I’ll tell it to you now

Sufjan retreats from the title track’s bombast on the next few tracks — e.g., “Enchanting Ghost”, “Heirloom”, “Arnika” — and re-explores the sparser, more stripped down devotional sound of 2004’s Seven Swans. The lyrics here are hushed and plaintive, telling cryptic tales of letting dead friends go, friendship and redemption, and abject loneliness. Musically, they’re as accomplished as the EP’s more “experimental” pieces — I find the melodic shifts on “Heirloom” particularly beguiling — and lyrically, they can be simply devastating. On “Arnika”, Sufjan bemoans and implores:

I’m tired of life; I’m tired of waiting for someone
I’m tired of prices; I’m tired of waiting for something
I’m tired of life; I’m tired of life

Oh be patient with me; for the night weighs on my chest with a terrible storm
Though we may disagree on how things should be done or how crisis is born
Don’t consider it done; wait until Leviathan lovingly creeps in your sill
For he waits in the dark, brooding magically; mustering paperback feelings

All of these tracks, however, pale in comparison to the EP’s truly epic closer, “Djohariah”. A 17-minute “guitar jam-for-single-mothers” and named after Sufjan’s younger sister, it’s the EP’s musical and emotional centerpiece despite its position at the very end. The first half of the song finds Sufjan in full freak-out mode as he wrangles and rips all manner of jittery noises out of his electric guitar. Here, “Djohariah” goes for broke in a manner that is grating at first but grows more exhilarating as the track progresses.

Or maybe I just think that because of the song’s second half, which “redeems” the first half’s cacophony as Sufjan et al. settle down for an extended singalong session/denouement that extols the virtues of motherhood in the face of trials and tribulations. It’s difficult to know how much of the song is biographical — many of his songs have traces and ghosts of personal anecdotes within them — but Sufjan certainly sings as if he’s pouring his heart out to a grievously wronged loved one.

And the man who left you for dead
He’s the heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater
You don’t need that man in your life

And you worked yourself to the bone
While the people say what they say
It’s the neighbors anyway
They don’t know what’s good for your life

I’ll admit to becoming rather undone when Sufjan cries out his sister’s name in that aching falsetto, and the song’s final verses are full of the peace and affirmation that have marked some of his finest tracks (e.g., “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”, “Vito’s Ordination Song”, “The Transfiguration”).

Don’t be ashamed, don’t cry in the bath
For it’s the story of, story of, morning glory story
It’s the gloriole that comes to your path

There is a time when the lights will arise
For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

[...]

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Go on! Little sister! Go on!
For you’re beautiful, beautiful
All the fullness of the world is yours

Perhaps I’m a little overly sensitive to songs about mothers these days, as I see what my wife sacrifices every day to care for our sons. Such that I can scarcely imagine how single mothers do it, and so I find myself nodding along wholeheartedly with Sufjan’s exhortation.

Last year, Sufjan made several comments that seemed to indicate that he’d become burned out, that he had begun doubting both his own ability to craft any sort of meaningful music and whether music had any meaning at all anymore. Thankfully, he seems to have passed through that particular long, dark night: All Delighted People is some of the most ambitious music the man has released to date. And with the news that he has a full-length coming out this fall, It seems like a very good and rewarding time to be a Sufjan Stevens fan.