Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sufjan Stevens- All Delighted People EP

Last Fall, Sufjan Stevens embarked on a relatively small tour during which he played a good deal of new, unreleased material. I saw one of these shows, and it was somewhat shocking to see him play as much electric guitar as he did the acoustic instruments I associate with him. Songs would carouse into extended fusion jazz blurts from his backing band or elongated guitar solos more akin to say, Built To Spill, than anything he had done before. Last Fall also saw the release of The BQE, Sufjan's symphonic work; in his own words, an attempt to get beyond pop songwriting, which he saw as his “greatest weapon.” So, with those concurrent developments in hand, the biggest surprise to me about this EP is simply its sudden release. After half a decade had elapsed since any new music from the man (The BQE aside, which is a different beast entirely), it was odd to wake up one day and see that he had a lengthy EP available for download and streaming.

Weighing in at eight songs and nearly an hour of music, it's odd that All Delighted People is considered an EP and priced as such. Only $5 for so much new Sufjan music?! What a deal! After a few listens, though, it becomes apparent why so much is available for so little. This EP is a hodgepodge of disparate music, all of it a notch or two below Sufjan's other work. Five shorter, more traditional songs jut up against three, uhm, different-beasts-entirely. To say it doesn't hang together or feel of a piece is an understatement. All Delighted People feels like a sweeping-of-the-table before the forthcoming The Age Of Adz, which, judging by the recently released song 'Too Much', sounds very little like this EP. One gets the feeling that Sufjan has been aimlessly puttering away in the studio over the past couple years and figured he might as well release the results before his “real” next batch of music hits. I could be wrong, of course, but Sufjan's releases have always had a crucial unified feel and flow that All Delighted People utterly lacks. Illinois was pretty varied, yet it works as a whole. Its track ordering and flow are impeccable. All Delighted People is, to quote 'From The Mouth Of Gabriel', “a very big mess.”

What's more, this is a real downer of an EP. I recall thinking that Sufjan seemed a bit bummed and out of it at the concert last Fall, and he's made comments in the press for the past couple years about how he didn't see a point to making albums anymore. Consequently, most of these songs seem given over to post-break up depression and apocalyptic dread. I never agreed before when people said that Sufjan's music was sad and defeated, or his voice whiny, but it's hard to listen to 'The Owl And The Tanager' and think otherwise. With minimalist piano backing and some vocal echo, he recounts a tale of some kind of love gone wrong, tied up in odd symbolic bird imagery, ending with the line “one waits until the hour is death.” Character sketch or harrowing personal tale, there's no symbolism to 'Arnika', bearing a refrain that sounds like a suicide note: “I'm tired of life, I'm tired of waiting for someone.” These shorter songs aren't awful, but they remind me of the kind of artless, going-through-the-motions poetry I used to churn out when I was depressed in high school and college. Compare even the best of these songs to his past work and the difference is stark. 'Enchanting Ghost' has some of his worst vocal work to date, with a rushed, strained delivery that sounds as if he wanted to finish as quickly as possible because he had to piss.

Elsewhere, those different-beasts-entirely sound like the experiments they (probably) were. 'Djohariah' is unforgivably long even if it does feature the bracing electric guitar soloing that impressed and surprised me at last Fall's show. Yet as guitar solo showpieces go, it's a long, long way from any of the old classics, and possesses the constant feel of building to some payoff or peak that never comes. Save the seventeen minute version for concerts, I say. Meanwhile, the two versions of 'All Delighted People' bring in the apocalyptic aspect I mentioned earlier. They make decent use of some borrowed lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel's 'The Sounds Of Silence' and the “original version” is probably this EP's most successful attempt at doing something new. It expands and contracts over its eleven minute run time, bringing in choral voices, malfunctioning noisy electric guitars, an orchestra, and a brass section, all topped off with an orchestral ending reminiscent of both the famous Psycho shower scene music and the speeding up cacophonous part of 'A Day In The Life' by the Beatles.

In my review of The BQE, I concluded that it wasneither terrible nor a complete triumph; neither essential nor forgettable.” It's odd that I wish I could say the same about All Delighted People. Many modern artists are using the EP format for music that, while not necessarily better than their albums, is at least almost as good as their albums. I paid what is essentially a standard album price for the Water Curses and Fall Be Kind EPs by Animal Collective on vinyl, and I don't regret it one bit. I don't normally bring up prices in reviews since they're largely irrelevant, but I feel like $5 is the absolute maximum you should pay for All Delighted People, even for a vinyl copy. Its experiments aren't terribly successful and the older style songs are sub-par. Here's hoping that new album I've been longing for back before even my BQE review proves he hasn't totally lost it.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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