[album review] sufjan stevens: all delighted people ep
September 30, 2010
Emerging from (or, perhaps more truthfully, into) relative obscurity with his third album, Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens was a pivotal protagonist in what felt like a genuine renaissance in North American songwriting at the turn of the millennium.
Along with (though independently of) Montreal’s Arcade Fire and Californian Joanna Newsom, for three or four years between 2003 and 2006 Stevens introduced compositional and instrumental ambition to the emotional and spiritual intimacy of American folk music. In doing so he (and they) created some simply jaw-dropping musical moments, perhaps most powerfully on Chicago, the centrepiece of his 2005 opus, Illinois.
All Delighted People EP represents the first collection of songs Stevens has released since those heady days (he released an instrumental album, The BQE, in 2009 to accompany a short film he made about New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). It’s inevitable that expectations were extraordinarily high in advance of this release. It’s impressive that those expectations are (mostly) met on listening.
The ambition is still there, as strong as it ever was: Stevens’ staple folk/rock instruments are joined by a brass-rich chamber orchestra and choir and the release is bookended by two sprawling, epic pieces, including the opening, Sounds Of Silence-quoting title track.
It is this version of the song (a shorter, superior version appears later on) that is the EP’s weak point. While melodically and lyrically it is typically bewitching, structurally it feels like an unsuccessful experiment in constructing a kind of prog-Americana – it lacks the disciplined clarity, the certainty of direction and destination, of his best work.
By contrast the closing piece is a triumph. Clocking in at 17 minutes, Djohariah is a raw plea/apology/tribute to Stevens’ eponymous sister (I strongly recommend this post from malleus&incus for a deeper immersion in its origins and meaning). Its emotion spills out unedited and unmediated, but each and every semi-quaver feels tightly targeted, perfectly placed and saturated with meaning.
In between, the Sufjan we know and love is in strong evidence. Employing simpler instrumentation and songwriting building blocks, pieces like Enchanting Ghost, From The Mouth Of Gabriel and The Owl And The Tanager most closely resemble the pastoral elegance of Michigan and follow-up Seven Swans.
The reassuring comfort this familiarity brings feels somehow wrong when applied to a musician whose key talent is to explore and reveal new emotional states (maybe one day all 50 of them). But Stevens’ innate skill is to wrap the transcendent in the homespun. He vividly achieves this once again on All Delighted People.
close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★
This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.