No grass grows under Sufjan Stevens' feet. From A Sun Came to The BQE, Stevens has managed to carve out possible careers from a classical composer to an electronic artist. But what Sufjan is probably best known for is his "50 States Project" which turned out only 2 states, and 4 albums, Michigan and Illinois and their collections of songs that didn't fit on the albums Seven Swans and The Avalanche (respectively). There's a beguiling simple beauty to each of these albums. A sort of populist songwriting that manages to touch on history, folksy wisdom, sentiment, and complex arrangement at the same time. Equal parts Carl Sandburg and Leonard Bernstein, these albums evoke the true Americana that they can't be sold in Cracker Barrel -- a country that is oddly naive, glorious, and (in the best of Sufjan's songs like "Romulus" and "Casmir Pulaski Day") tragic. Connected to land, people and faith. It's no secret that Stevens is a devout person and that this faith pervades his recordings. And perhaps, it's surprising that he's managed to become such an integral figure in indie rock given his religious leanings. In a scene steeped in irony, listlessness, and ambivalence, Stevens is sincere, ambitious, and prayerful.
So, when the All Delighted People EP hit the web on Friday, available from Stevens' bandcamp page (streaming and for purchase), it's no wonder that we all took notice. For one, Steven's has insinuated himself as one of the true poets working in music today. And for second, no one had ANY idea this was coming.
All Delighted People is less a conceptual exercise and more a collection of songs like concert mainstay "The Owl and The Tanager" and the titular "All Delighted People" and it's remixed versions. In this case, it seems that Stevens has put the cart before the horse, releasing a collection of songs that (probably) won't make it onto his next LP slated for later this fall (?). But, like most of the stuff Sufjan does, there's nothing small about this EP. The 8 tracks clock in just short of an hour including the epic 17-min long track "Djohariah." So, as a collection of odds and ends, it's still pretty hefty.
And, as a collection, there are parts that shine more than others. The biggest hit is the aforementioned "Djohariah" which has shades of "Sister" from Seven Swans but manages to cram more notes into 17 minutes than you could think possible. It's also probably the most lyrically engaging of the batch. The same goes for the ponderous "Arnika" which pushes out of tune noodling together with character sketches. It's here that we see what's possibly the next direction of Sufjan's work -- less epic and more biographical. Not about states but about people.
That said overall this album feels like Sufjan is a little tired of his states schtick. "All Delighted People" sounds less delighted and more like an obligation as in "I'm supposed to make you make you feel how joyous this is." It crosses into Christian sing-along territory more than anything else he's ever written. And the evocation of Simon and Garfunkel seems to signal a break with the troubadour tradition. Stevens' is too studied to see himself in the folksinger vein. And as the allusion to "Sound of Silence" shows, he's more interested in contrast than homage.
For someone that we've heard make huge music intimate and intimate music huge in an almost effortless manner, this EP feels like it took the most effort. As a collection, I'm not sure if it's possible to rate it without something more conceptual behind it. So, it gets an incomplete grade from me. Not for lack of listening, but because I'm waiting for what comes next.