Sufjan Stevens

All Delighted People EP

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2010)

By Dom Sinacola | 2 September 2010

Without putting too fine a point upon what Sufjan Stevens has been saying in long-winded interviews, implying with a patchy public life, about where he sees his music heading; or what music means to him; or what metaphysical quandary he seems to be carrying around, the chip on his shoulder more like a parrot repeating his past accomplishments steadily and annoyingly in his ear—without making too much out of that, All Delighted People says a lot about where the guy’s head is at.

All Delighted People is a glimpse at a new Sufjan—or at least that’s how it seems, what with the suddenness and the anxiety wrapped, intrinsically and silently, in the arrival of this new Sufjan Stevens material. Of any new Sufjan Stevens material, really: to think that if Stevens were quizzed about his intentions with the so-named States Project he would respond in equal measure, questioning how anyone could imagine him to ever complete what was so obviously a joke, or so obviously unattainable, or so obviously anything that isn’t a reality.

I’ve joked that when I first heard All Delighted People not so long ago I wanted to punch it in the face. Though I enjoy the EP much more now, having developed a relationship with its sometimes grating, sometimes magnificent 60 minutes through a laborious and equally rewarding week or so, I still, when its louder parts and swarm of incongruous personality quirks quiet and tire, catch a glimpse of a face I’d like to punch, a mug pretty and accessible with a bit too much of a knowing glint in its eyes.

Because I kind of think Sufjan is fucking with us. This EP, this supposed nibble, is too much of a slog to be a preview and much too complicated in its self-absorption to be a sidestep. If you have been paying even scant attention to Sufjan Stevens over the past decade, then All Delighted People should seem like nothing less than the hyper-detailed, catch-all ramblings of an artist fed up with his status in whatever subculture it is he’s resigned himself to, and then fed up with whatever that means. See also Meeting People Is Easy, which is a pretty frustrating and purposely difficult movie about Thom Yorke’s melodramatic, twitchy-eyed psychological breakdown post-OK Computer (1997). I’m not implying that Stevens and Yorke are on the same level, nor that they should be revered as such, somehow justifying their strangely obstinate behavior as far as admitting to the reverence they’re already shown. What I’m implying is what’s still an unnerving mash in my head: I like Sufjan; I like him because of and despite everything that he does that I hate in every other musician; I like him though I think he’s an easy target and does no favors to himself—and I think All Delighted People is more fun to talk about than listen to even though I have trouble discerning what it is I’m trying to say.

Throughout the last five years, something happened to Sufjan Stevens. Illinois (2005) happened. Notoriety happened, of course, as did money, acclaim, artistic freedom, endless opportunities; but something happened inside of Sufjan Stevens that the rest of the world, whether they were looking or not, wasn’t partial to. The BQE (2009) seems more and more like an omen: Stevens began to believe his detractors, to gradually accept that his grand aspirations were looking more and more impossible and, with acceptance, doubt the very foundation from which all that notoriety and money and acclaim, all that music, was born. And in the cauldron of such doubt brewed sarcasm—Stevens took stock of all the things about him that people enjoyed because of their precariousness and pushed public sentiment so that revisionists can claim Stevens is an artist, in 2010, to enjoy despite all those things. Yes, he must have thought, my song titles are too long; yes, a concept album is a crutch; yes, Cokemachineglow, you had every right to call me “Suf-yawn.”

In turn, he puts out an EP that isn’t an EP, and he puts it out unexpectedly; he records different versions of songs that are functionally different songs; he names them vaguely. But still his music thrives: this is his cake and he is eating it too and he is getting frosting on his mouth and as you sit through each fattening, abusively delicious minute you want so badly to smack that sugar right off his pouting lips. This he knows throughout (cue: knowing glint in his eye) and this EP is what he holds up whenever you complain, as if it represents, after all this time, the culmination of five years of blinding artistic pain. This is what we had coming.

Unfortunately, All Delighted People is barely as interesting as the melodrama that surrounds it—its songs are too aimless and obsessive, its lyrics too given to conversational logic sung with an air of over-impotence. “The Owl and the Tanager” either doesn’t make sense or is just wracked with metaphors that don’t add up—it mewls and lags and goes nowhere, tripped up in dwelling on each deeply echoed note—but it’s also, despite itself, gorgeous. Hummable at its barest moments even. And I enjoy this song, this EP, for these sparse and unaffected moments, which glow pretty intensely when one remembers a Sufjan with nothing to hide, who hid nothing, with hundreds of instruments as his palette, a full landscape as his canvas, novels for his song titles. This is why “Heirloom” is so refreshing, a naturalistic descendant of Seven Swans’s (2004) unforgiving starkness and the closest we can get to the conciseness of a “Two Be Alone With You” or “The Dress Looks Nice On You.”

I applaud what is ostensibly Stevens’s biggest step away from the could-be cash cow of recording another Illinois-sized behemoth of folk rock and twee-funk; he is, after all, experimenting, and one can’t fault him for that. Look no further than “Arnika,” a pâté of Akron/Family squeakiness and limp interludes, to check Sufjan taking a stab at anti-Sufjan sentiment; he’s talking about sex for Christ’s sake. Even “All Delighted People,” the “original” version the EP’s welcoming salvo, casts Sufjan in a queasy light, beatific voices initially crowning his lonely, unpleasant voice. Purposely unpleasant, mind you—drooling syllables out the corner of his mouth, supplication to St. Björk.

Which is only one instance of All Delighted People‘s mettle, of how its built almost entirely of music trapped hopelessly within itself. Its songs—dense with horns, strings, choirs, heavenly banners unfurling from chortling electric guitar necks shooting wads of crepe paper into the digitized night sky starbursting with 8-bit twinkles—are inaccessible more often than not, no longer tethered to the idea that where Sufjan takes us—though the journey stretches on—we’ll eventually find solace and resolution. With the exception of such glimpses of the Sufjan that once set out to conquer the country adorable head held high, walking tall and unhindered, prehistoric, myxo-mythical, bigger than he knows he deserves, like Johnny Appleseed, like Babe the Blue Ox, All Delighted People is a busy mess. Far from a promise of an unveiled revelation for Stevens, it attempts to bridge the half-decade gap between music he wants to make and music his fans want him to make.

Impossible probably—and no matter how you feel about the guy, you realize the pressure he’s under. All Delighted People may be the tail of a tumultuous point in Stevens’s creative life; it may be the beginning. But that uncertainty is its most conspicuous aspect, and whether or not this EP is still buffeted by Sufjan’s unflagging gift for arrangement and melody and orchestration and pathos and girth and everything one loves about Sufjan Stevens, that uncertainty is what is plastered across his forehead, across the face that, come October, may need a healthy bruise.