Man. This record, [he says in a sort of indie rock dad voice. Sufjan Stevens provokes an unusual image of dad-ness. His music is polished, comfortably "mid-fi," even "hi-fi." It is unapologetically literary, but usually stops short of being too enamored of its own cleverness. It's dad-y in an awkwardly un-dad-like way. It's the lanky kid you knew in high school now on the way to being a dad and feeling chagrined about it, but also enthusiastic at the same time.]
All Delighted People
is a weird record, the type that invites anachronistic usage of the word "record," if only because doing so seems appropriately playful, romantic but definitely knowing. It bills itself as an EP, and kind of is one, in the sense that it's stylistically less focused than one might expect a Sufjan Stevens "full-length" to be. It's also aggressively not
an EP. The thing runs nearly an hour long. It's not slight in any sense. Its songs are substantial, ambitious, and the best in Sufjan's discography.
These songs. Hmm. "All Delighted People" is a shocking piece of work, practically begging to be called "indulgent" and "pretentious" and any number of overused adjectives. It's twelve minutes long, it's structurally loose, it employs a recognizably "wounded" vocal style. Hell, NME called it "self-consciously pained," or something. I can't remember off the top of my head. That sounds accurate, though.
What I'm getting at here, you see, is that the song is actually incredible! I haven't really cracked it lyrically, but sonically and emotionally it goes everywhere and goes with gusto. It's so much and it's glorious. And I suppose I'm not a very reliable person to use this metric, since I'm a huge sap, but it's a tear-jerker. Not in the same way "Casimir Pulaski Day" is a tear-jerker. Nah, "All Delighted People" is a cathartic weeper. The final four minutes of the original version? Absolutely devastating. When Sufjan drops out all instrumentation save urgent string tremolos and a chorus exhorting, "Suffer not the child among you, or shall you die young," or whatever the line even is, I'm gone. Lost. Find me somewhere curled up crying. But it's also a life-affirming weeper. Each time I come back to it, I find myself invigorated and wanting to approach the world with a little more hope. Not naïveté. Grizzled, seasoned, resistant hope.
Hyperbolic? Maybe. But: leave me alone, mom, let me feel things, et cetera.
Not every song on this EP-not-an-EP is quite so stirring; some are simply gorgeous. "Owl and the Tanager" is a lovely, elegiac number in the vein of "The Seer's Tower" or some of the particularly bittersweet cuts from Sufjan's various Christmas (actual) EPs. "Enchanting Ghost" is a deceptively simple enigma that actually has some of the most beguilingly strange melodies and arrangements Sufjan's ever written. On the flip side, "Heirloom" is one of the most melodically direct songs in Sufjan's catalog, and its country twang renders the chorus of "la la las" that soar over the track somewhat unexpected and very effective.
Actually: about that vague phrase, "country twang." You know how I called this record less "stylistically focused" than Sufjan's other ones? It sort of is, but only ostensibly so. These songs all have a lightly scruffy edge to them. The piano bits here are either intimate (as in "Owl and the Tanager") or aggressively jangly (as in the prepared piano glory of "From the Mouth of Gabriel"). What little drumming there is on the album sounds pleasant and "warm." And on the agreeable "classic rock" version of "All Delighted People" (lmao) and the expansive closer "Djohariah," the guitar solos are really squelchy.
Ah, yes. "Djohariah," [he says in his best thoughtful voice, stroking his beard if he has one. The thoughtful voice is an appropriately "bemused" and "serious" one with which he plans to discuss the seventeen-minute closing song on this EP-that's-not-an-EP.]
"Djohariah" is a companion piece to "All Delighted People," its first several minutes a celebration of that song's communal spirit. There's the guitar solo, sure, and it's front and center, but there's also the cooing choir surrounded lovingly by piano plunks and horn calls. Like "All Delighted People," "Djohariah" reaches a new level of beauty in its final minutes, but here it's a reversal: if "All Delighted People" gained emotional urgency in its coda by growing its forces, "Djohariah" goes inward. Even the electronic beats that come in towards the end of the song (foreshadowing the arrival of the imperfect Age of Adz)
feel private in a way that the buzzy synths on "From the Mouth of Gabriel" don't. (There, they're a cartoonish portal to someplace ecstatic.) The song is leisurely and generous in the face of abuse and fear and sadness: "Don't be ashamed, don't hide in your room."
I guess that what I'm saying is, [he says while shifting in his chair, not a dad anymore because that archetype doesn't actually feel at all accurate] All Delighted People
goes places and returns from them in a way that just feels precious and vulnerable and beautiful. And I know it's weird and wrong on some level to evaluate a record this written
on a largely affective level, but as is so obvious here!
I absolutely love this record. I want to live in it every now and then, because it indulges darkness but also provides a vague way out. It is therapeutic to me, even if I'm not sure what these songs are really about. (Maybe I'm obtuse. Maybe I really don't want to mess with the 2010 memories/associations. Those two things are, of course, not mutually exclusive.) Basically, "essentially," it meeeeeeeans
something. Man. This record.