ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People ∴






There’s a moment at the end of Sufjan Stevens’ All  Delighted People EP, almost fourteen minutes into the record’s final track, “Djohariah,” where the drums are replaced with a synthetic beat that pulses behind the ebb and flow of a male and female voice and Sufjan’s repeated refrain of “Djohariah,” the name of his sister. I think it’s the most beautiful moment on an EP full of beautiful moments, a brilliant condensation of everything that makes Sufjan Stevens one of the most impressive artists releasing music today. He has a phenomenal voice. He tends toward epic orchestration, in scope and in scale. He is uplifting and crushing, confident and vulnerable. He embodies the ongoing struggle between organic sound and machine-made noise. And now, after five years in the shadows and repeated allusions that he may never return to releasing music, he’s back.

I won’t pretend to use an album to psychoanalyze an artist - for all I know the past five years have been the happiest years of Sufjan Stevens’ life. Let it be said, though, that All Delighted People contains more darkness, struggle, and musical juxtaposition than any of his previous releases. As usual, Sufjan is about tension and release on All Delighted People, layering and stripping, building and breaking throughout. But something is a little different here – the tracks are more jumbled, as if not entirely sure where they are headed. In fact, the album contains two separate versions of the title song, one original and one "classic rock version". The two takes vary widely, with the latter obviously featuring more guitars  solos than the orchestral original, but the fact that they comprise a third of the album’s length give weight to the idea that this is more experimentation than we’re used to seeing from Sufjan. After all, this is the same musician who left a full twenty-one tracks on the cutting room floor of Illinois, an album that contained twenty-two separate songs upon its release.

In more ways than one, Sufjan has changed as an artist. His voice, especially on the original version of “All Delighted People,” has a few more of the flourishes that Joanna Newsome uses as a calling card. Elsewhere, the album has more electronic elem, interplaying with the banjo, chorus, and orchestra that Stevens has long favored. Even tracks like “Enchanting Ghost,” which would fit in nicely on either of the states albums, have rolling guitars that seem shiny and new. Older song “The Owl and the Tanager,”  a sad piano tune that Sufjan has been playing live for years, is more intimate than we usually hear Stevens; perhaps it’s here that the influence of Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence” referenced by the EP’s official website is revealed.

All Delighted People is a fifty-nine minute long EP that is defined by wonderful confusion; the tug of war between chorus and feedback in “All Delighted People,” the willfully bent measures and sloppy instruments of “Arnika” and “From the Mouth of Gabriel,” the split personalities of the expansive “Djohariah.” The confusion seems intentional, a conscious effort by Stevens to push the medium, splattering the paints on the canvas rather than always using the brush. After experimenting with electronica, he reverts to form, building “All Delighted People” to a screeching and shrieking conclusion using only strings as if to say, “I haven’t forgotten about this orchestra back here and they’re still in the picture.” Likewise, his desperation is tempered with hope; “What difference does it make if the world is a mess,” he asks during the album’s opener, “if the world is immense.” Later, on “Djohariah,” he advises his sister, “Go on, for you’re beautiful. Beautiful, all the fullness of the world is yours.”

All Delighted People isn’t perfect, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s an unpolished gem, a collection of songs lacking production sheen, but seeming more real as a result. With a proper Sufjan Stevens album fast approaching on the horizon, though, All Delighted People is a perfect refresher course, a delicious appetizer that is nearly filling on its own. It’s a remarkable re-entry by one of today’s top artists after a noticeable absent – Sufjan saying “I’m back, but I might look a little different.” Looks good.

87? — [Rating Scale]