In Brief: A chance to reflect fondly on a closing chapter, and look forward to whatever weirdness the future has in store. It’s a mess, but it’s a lovable mess.
This Sufjan Stevens fan has been whining about when we’re gonna get a new album from the guy for almost five years now. Not a B-sides collection. Not an instrumental composition. Not a Christmas album. (Not even five of them.) I’m talking about a full-fledged collection of brand new songs recorded in the studio, featuring actual lyrics and vocals, something that could rightfully be seen as a follow-up to Sufjan’s monolithic Illinois. OK, so the man spent most of this last half-decade feeling rather apathetic about the idea of making another album, which might explain the lack of cohesive output. Nevertheless, he’s finally pulled his stuff together and announced that The Age of Adz is due out on October 12. And the fandom rejoiced!
…but this isn’t a review of The Age of Adz. This writer hasn’t heard it yet. I certainly plan to, since there’s nothing more fascinating and yet more terrifying as the thought of the banjo-toting, baroque-pop-troubador turned indie-rock hero who created two of my very favorite albums of the last ten years trying to intentionally defy most of his trademark moves. But before I get to that, there’s this other little bit of business to get out of the way first. Almost immediately preceding the sudden announcement of this new album, an EP full of brand new recordings surfaced without warning, entitled All Delighted People. Considering a farewell to the Sufjan Stevens of old if you will. From the intimate warbling that made some of the quieter moments on Michigan and Seven Swans so memorable, to the jacked-up electric guitar freakouts that punctuated Sufjan’s otherwise pastoral, communal approach to writing pop songs, to the exuberant backing vocals and marching band madness that made him one of a kind, it’s all here on this hour-long EP.
Wait… hour long EP? Seriously? Why not just call this an album and be done with it? Some of my favorite bands only made it to a little over half this length and called it an album. Isn’t this the same guy who loaded down Illinois with 22 tracks, many of which were instrumentals or segues with ridiculously long titles? And now he’s filling up an hour with 8 tracks? (I mean that there are eight distinct songs. Not that he released it in 8-track format. Though given how much audophiles are geeking out over old technology these days, you know it’s only a matter of time.) It turns out that it’s probably best to call this an EP, because much like the startlingly loud collage of faces on its cover, this is pretty much “anything goes”, with no expectation that it will play as a cohesive collection of songs. The title track alone, in two different installments, takes up nearly twenty minutes of it. A runaway jam session at the end of the disc fills another seventeen. What remains is five comparatively more intimate folk songs, brimming with the do-it-yourself attitude and instrumental flourishes for which we know and love Sufjan, but also subverting our expectations in odd ways. There’s some off-key clanging about here, some synths there, and in general, as much of a desire to gleefully throw a dissonant monkey wrench into the proceedings as there is to play it perfectly straight and somber. You wouldn’t be too off-base if you simply assumed that this was a way to get music out there into the hands of hungry listeners, music that might otherwise be relegated to B-sides or fan lore recounting tales of what could have been. If Sufjan’s closing a chapter of his career, then as sad as I am to see that chapter go, it sure was nice of him to give us an epilogue.
But like anything in this life that generates a ton of hype and then faces the pressure of delivering a follow-up, there’s bound to be some disappointment here. I feel a bit of it, even coming in with the less stratospheric expectations that I’d place on an EP versus a full-length album. Fewer songs means a bigger void left in the listener’s mind when an experiment fails – and there are a few fatiguing examples of so-so ideas that just won’t quit. All Delighted People can also be a bit of a downer at times. Not that this is anything new, given that Sufjan’s written a ballad about a serial killer and given an imaginary first-person account of the apocalypse on past recordings. But needless to say, this won’t leave fans with the same euphoria that so many of us felt at the close of Michigan or Illinois. My reaction to some of these works is “Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea”, and then I move on. A few compositions are quite good; others have their memorable bits in between the strange moments of flailing about. All in all, it reveals the restless mind of a man who is content not to rest on his laurels. I guess I never seriously expected his to actually complete that 50 States project… but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have complained if he had decided to stay the course. Maybe it’s better that he decided to challenge his listeners a bit – think back to such odd works as Enjoy Your Rabbit and you’ll realize that this is hardly the first time.
1. All Delighted People (Original Version)
“And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made”. If those lines, among others, sound astonishingly familiar, it’s because Sufjan is borrowing liberally from the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence” in this sprawling 11-minute epic, which ranges in its mood from ghostly quiet to cardiac-inducingly loud, at times switching moods rather abruptly. It’s about as far from radio friendly as any vocal track Sufjan’s ever recorded, taking its sweet time to build toward what’s less of a chorus and more of a single repeated line – “All delighted people, raise your hands” – that serves to anchor the song amidst its many wanderings. The horns, with all of their bending notes, and the strings, which verge on being worthy of a horror movie soundtrack near the song’s end, serve to add dissonance to the track, but listen carefully enough and you’ll begin to see a method to the way that this track builds up, explodes, and then reconstructs itself. I can’t even come close to interpreting the lengthy, apocalyptic story being told here, but Sufjan tells it with equal parts reverence and despair in his quivering voice. My favorite part of the song is probably where the backing vocalists congeal into a bit of a choir near the end, which is where the strings really start to go nuts. What I once saw as an attempt to defy his own strengths and deliberately sabotage a good song, I now see as integral elements to the song. I’m starting to get the hang of the new Sufjan, I think – but he won’t stay this way for long.
2. Enchanting Ghost
Yay, the banjo’s back! That instrument combines with simple piano and acoustic guitar to create one of Sufjan’s more lush, yet intimate pieces, similar in tone to something from Seven Swans, but with more of a haunted feel (pun intended). Sufjan is grappling with the memory of someone who has either left him or died – the person permeates the room, and he doesn’t want to prevent them from moving on, but he knows they’ll still be there in all the kick-knacks and memorabilia from their relationship. “Stopping you would stifle your enchanting ghost”, he breathes. I love the forlorn feeling of this song. It’s short, but it leaves an impression.
The brevity of this tiny little folk song seems strange, considering the excesses heard elsewhere on this EP. What occupies this brief space of two minutes and change is another lovely little acoustic song with a compelling melody, though – and this is slightly dissonant with the tone of the lyrics, as is often the case on All Delighted People. The thought expressed here seems to be intentionally tacked on after “Enchanting Ghost” – someone has returned, he feels their presence in the room, and he’s trying to make peace with that presence even though it’s treating him as an adversary. That’s my best guess. Mostly I just listen and delight in the lovely fingerpicking.
4. From the Mouth of Gabriel
Things get considerably more bizarre here, with some sort of prepared, muted piano clanging away, and squeaky woodwinds chiming in and everything sound just a bit tinny and off-key. It reminds me of what little I know of Danielson, a group that I know Sufjan’s spent some time with. Yet it’s a bit more soft-spoken than that, with Sufjan describing strange prophecies and visions received from an angel known to serve as God’s mouthpiece. Even when Sufjan takes on such obviously religious material, it’s never as straightforward as you might think, which I figure is why he’s continually able to get away with Bible references and yet keep his indie cred. Not that you’d ever get the feeling you were preached at from a song like this – Sufjan is simply playing the role of a meek voice cowering in the corner, having seen something so baffling that he’s not sure what the heck is going on. Just to remind us not to get too attached to Sufjan’s folksy side, there’s this little sparkling section of electronica that rises up from almost nowhere, but that adds a lovely new dimension to a song where everything but the kitchen sink already seems to be the M.O.
5. The Owl and the Tanager
This song gives me the shivers when I listen to it. I mean that in the best possible way. If something as sparse as “The Seer’s Tower” or “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” gave you the chills on Illinois, and you enjoyed that reaction, then this’ll be right up your alley. With six and a half minutes of the piano alternating between stark minor chords and breathtaking glissando, and Sufjan’s pained, almost childlike falsetto, it’s quiet and yet fantastically spooky. It’s a tale of a predator and its prey, loaded with nightmare fuel as Sufjan gives us hints of a relationship gone sour, and a possible murder taking place far off in some rural location where the secret will remain unrevealed for years to come. it’s amazing how effectively his meek voice can convey a menacing tone as he practically whispers “You little boy, you little boy”, like a bully taunting a small child. But it might be the wordless “Hoo-ooh-ooh-ha-ha” of the chorus that really cements it in my memory. It’s like a warped bird call, a twisted laugh, revealing an extremely fragile man behind it. Maybe I’m just that messed up, but this is actually my favorite track on the EP.
6. All Delighted People (Classic Rock Version)
You can assume that the descriptor of “classic rock” was given with a wink and a nudge here. This is definitely a more straightforward take on the title track, and there are some drum fills reminiscent of classic rock, but there’s still banjo and a bit of squiggly synth and one of Sufjan’s patented guitar freakouts toward the end, and LOOK PEOPLE THIS IS NOT A ROCK SONG. Except maybe by the broadest definition of “indie rock”. Still, it’s the more sane of the two takes, and Sufjan keeps it to a modest (!) eight minutes as opposed to the original eleven and a half. The aural assaults of chaotic noise are missing here, which I guess is why there are slightly more conventional breaks for instrument solos to make up for it. I originally liked this version better because I thought the original was crazy; now I like the original better for exactly that reason. This is still enjoyable as an alternate take, but I miss the choral/string outro of the original when I listen to this one.
Now this track is just… oy. It’s another one of those clunky folk songs seemingly made to sound like it was recorded with a few off-key instruments that were just lying around. It’s full of these pregnant pauses that remind me of the B-side “Pittsfield”, except that these pauses later get filled by hammering on the same word and chord like a broken record, which is rather irritating. I suppose the stilted pace of it and the repetition are appropriate to Sufjan’s impatient tone – he moans, “I’m tired of life” repeatedly and seems to be begging a married woman for an affair. Sufjan’s homespun characters and stories are never quite that straightforward of course, so bear in mind that I’m not sounding the moral alarm bells here (ZOMG ADULTERY AND SUICIDE!!!11!1). It’s just that it’s hard to latch onto any of the rather whiny lyrical content when the song is performed in such a constipated manner. At over five minutes, this is a tedious one to get through.
Did I say the last track was tedious. Oh my goodness gosh golly, you have not known tediousness until you have heard this baffling closing track. It might start out innocently enough, with a chilled wah-wah vibe and a slow jam gradually building up on a compelling chord progression. I like the chord progression, the way it shifts around in a predictable, yet moody manner. I’m not so sure I like 17 straight minutes of it. That’s not to say that the song doesn’t go through considerable amounts of variation, because it does. But as the horns and the wailing “Oooh”s start to build up, you’re gradually sucked into the most insane, indulgent, messy thing that could ever be considered a guitar solo. This goes on for several minutes, the track eventually starts to die down and a peppy little horn march takes over, building up and going through this entire cycle again, and it’s past the ten minute mark before we hear any lyrics other than the repeating line “Djohari, Djohariah”. That’s the name of Sufjan’s sister, by the way, and I hope to God she liked this track, because it is the most out-there thing I’ve ever heard him do. Those who adore the excesses of 70’s era prog rock and hippy jam bands would probably love this – and I’ve heard people describe it as an example of epic rocking, but personally, I think it could be trimmed to nine or ten minutes without losing its gusto. Once the soloing is over and the song proper starts, it turns out to be quite touching – a song of solidarity urging her to stand in defiance against an abusive husband. It’s sung as sweetly and meekly as most of Sufjan’s stuff, which makes the messy guitar business seem a bit schizophrenic, but that’s art for ya. Eventually some electronic beats and handclaps kick in, and this is when you know you’re in the home stretch. it’s actually quite strange that Sufjan ends with this rhythmic vibe, finally scaling it back to a quiet acoustic moment and then just letting it trail off. It averts the expectation of a grand finale, meaning that you don’t quite expect the unassuming end when it finally comes. I’ve made my peace with this track, I suppose – first time I listened to it, I swore, “Never again!”, but now I find myself enjoying most of it. I could see my wife wanting to run screaming out of the room after about five minutes’ worth of this, though. Considering that fair warning if you have loved once who are already on the fence about your defiantly indie listening habits – this one probably won’t win Sufjan any new fans.
Actually, that last sentence might apply to All Delighted People as a whole. I’ve come to respect most of what Sufjan did here, and even to see some of the missteps as adventurous paths that he’s better off for having taken than he would have been for playing it safe. But I sure hope The Age of Adz are any future full-length albums are a bit more cohesive than this mess. It’s a lovable enough mess, so don’t get me wrong. Compared to the nothing I initially expected to get from Sufjan this year, two hours plus of new material is a cause for rejoicing. And the $5 asking price (downloadable in the format of your choice) definitely makes it a risk worth taking. So I’d say give it a whirl if you like Sufjan’s previous stuff and you’re feeling a bit adventurous.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All Delighted People (Original Version) $2
Enchanting Ghost $1.50
From the Mouth of Gabriel $1
The Owl and the Tanager $2
All Delighted People (Classic Rock Version) $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.