[10 September 2010]
On his last tour, Sufjan Stevens proudly showcased a plethora of new material that marked a shocking and exciting new direction. Songs like “There’s Too Much Love” and “Age of Adz” suggested, rather inexplicably, the Flaming Lips strolling through the Kid A sessions: buoyant guitar-pop caked with gnarled electronics and skronking horns. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one releasing a massive sigh of relief. Stevens could easily become a caricature of himself if he were to simply continue churning out banjo hymns and twee choral pieces.
Thankfully, Stevens is acutely aware of this predicament. and in recent interviews, he has expressed boredom with his own voice, the banjo and his aesthetic in general. Last year, he even told Signal To Noise “I’m trying to dissuade any kind of conceptual framework and just write music, love songs, pop songs, and just forget all that conceptual mess”. His contribution to the Dark Was The Night compilation, a towering electro-orchestral take on The Castanets’ “You Are The Blood”, was another warning sign that Stevens really, truly wants us to come on and feel the noise.
All Delighted People’s release was a complete surprise which allowed for a management of expectations. With no fanfare or hype, fans were unable to wait anxiously in hopes of another masterpiece. This was a smart move on Stevens’ part because All Delighted People is a minor letdown, but it could have been a major one had he allowed anticipation to build. Most damning of all is the EP’s title track: an absolute clusterfuck of hubris. It rages on for almost 12 minutes—winding through a gratuitous number of sections, piling on string and choral arrangements until there is no room for the song to breathe. It feels like he couldn’t decide how to execute the track, so he just did everything.
Stevens adds insult to injury by including a second, “classic rock” version of “All Delighted People” which fares slightly better simply by being less cluttered and grating. In fact, it could almost pass for an outtake from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Beware until the finale’s brain-scrambling guitar solo kicks in. The EP’s third, and final, misstep is its closing track, “Djohariah”. All snark aside, this 17-minute monster barely constitutes as a “song”. It’s composed of almost nothing but a choir singing the song’s title as an endless refrain and an equally endless, ragged guitar solo that echoes Neil Young so loudly and clearly, that Soof might as well send Young a thank you card with a check.
Thankfully, the EP’s remaining five songs are lovely keepers. “Heirloom” conjures Neil Young once again, but this time it’s exquisitely spun Harvest Gold. Soof’s love affair with all things ornithological continues on “The Owl and the Tanager”—a gorgeous piano ballad that I assume, at this point, must come as naturally to him as sighing. “From The Mouth of Gabriel” is a banjo hymn a la Seven Swans albeit with a slight synth-pop sheen. Knowing that Stevens is releasing a new LP, Age of Adz, in about a month, All Delighted People can’t help but feeling like a transitional piece packed with the requisite growing pains as well as allusions of things to come.
It is disappointing that the best of the new tunes highlighted during Stevens’ recent tours—especially the jaw-dropping “Majesty Snowbird”—are absent from All Delighted People. However, it appears that most of them will appear on the forthcoming Age of Adz which only reinforces my belief that this EP is a closet-clearing, stop-gap measure. As it stands, All Delighted People is a curious and relatively minor release for Stevens. As a context-less bundle of songs, All Delighted People is Stevens having a little fun while testing the elasticity of his sound.