All Delighted People
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Time: 8 tracks / 58 mins
Stevens often conveys a sense of messy lo-fi and once told MTV that he likes to create the feel of a grade six band. Here he takes that school band approach and makes it perform in symphonic style, only to quieten right down elsewhere.
The title track is one of the high points. A live component for quite some time, it is a fascinating, twisted reconstruction of several key lines from Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence,” on which he has built a completely new song. Sprawling, epic and strangely addictive, it has all the elements that make up Stevens’ music: a self-conscious awkwardness, panoramic vision, those parping brass arrangements and a touch of the unpredictable madness that marks out a James Bond villain, all bundled into an orchestral and choral blanket with some hushed bits still sticking out. Pioneering and wildly authentic, it takes its live antecedent to a new level, buffing it with spoonfuls of polish.
Later comes a slightly shorter “Classic Rock” version of the song. It begins with mandolin and the usual brass, so that’s a bit of a misnomer, except for the ragged and distorted, very Neil Young type of guitar solo bolted onto the last two minutes. Along with an “Ah-ah-ah” vocal riff and brass underpinnings, the same guitar lasts for most of “Djohariah,” a piece dedicated to his eponymous sister, whose name gradually appears over the somewhat unnecessary seventeen minutes. There really are many similarities to Young’s “Hurricane.” The track supports his sister as she copes with single motherhood, referring to “The man who left you for dead, he’s the heart-grabber, backstabber, double-cheater, wife-beater – you don’t need him anymore.”
In between, sit a few contrasting quiet pieces. “Enchanting Ghost” will be a favourite for many. It is one of his gentle, yet passionately felt, minimal pieces, something that could have come from the Illinoise or particularly Seven Swans albums, as could “Heirloom,” which loses the piano to bring a rippling Anthony Phillips-style guitar to the fore. “The Owl and the Tanager” is as Tori Amos-quirky as the title suggests, bringing a ‘twit-twoo’ into the vocal hook. Stevens calls it a “gothic piano ballad.”
Much of this is lyrically inscrutable, although plenty seems to be about relationships and Stevens’ own self-doubt, alongside references to brokenness (“The world is a mess” appears in two songs). Untidy enough to annoy some, but dramatic, wistful and a tad self-indulgent by turns, this beautifully inconsistent release must rate up with (or above) Illinoise as the peak, so far, of his bold and innovative creative spirit.