Way back in 2005, when the world was a happier place – as yet untainted by financial apocalypse, Twilight still only available in hardback, and with all of us looking a great deal younger than we do today, all saggy and withered – Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, arguably the greatest American folk album of the 2000s. A ridiculously detailed concept album, Illinois was the proof many needed to qualify Stevens as the brightest talent in America. And then… nothing. Not really, at least. The following years saw sporadic releases from Stevens, in the forms of outtakes records, Christmas song collections, instrumental pieces inspired by terrible works of civil engineering and a barely-listenable re-interpretation of his debut recorded by a string quartet who had seemingly no control over their limbs. And then, out of the blue, three days ago, an EP. Except, this being Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People is no ordinary EP.
In fact, it is as good as an album, clocking in just forty-five seconds shy of a full hour, and home to eight tracks, three of which are long enough to guarantee they’ll never be played on the radio. And so, after five years of waiting, fans have a collection of songs that could, with some credibility, be called the follow-up to Illinois. There will, of course, be the inevitable comparisons to said album, though we mention it here only to build a sense of an expectation – the sort of expectation fans of Stevens’ music will most likely feel in regards to All Delighted People. And this we mention only to illustrate this point: many people are bound to be disappointed, such are their expectations. Similarly, many people will rave endlessly on about the new EP, as though it were the second tablet Moses brought down from the mountain. “Wow! And we thought ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ was good, wait till you hear ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’!”
All Delighted People is, however, a more than pleasant collection of songs. Stevens’ weakest new tracks, ‘From the Mouth of Gabriel’, ‘The Owl and the Tanager’ are weak only in that they are not instantly memorable – they are not songs that have within them a tendency to instantly grab the listener, to drag them in a hold their ears at ransom until they fall in love. This is perhaps what the longer songs are able to do – the two versions of the title track, which grow more and more impressive not only through repeat listens, but through the course of the songs themselves. The ‘original version’ of ‘All Delighted People’ is especially heart-warming, building to a dramatic chorus of seemingly dozens of voices, singing the lyrics with glorious passion. Stevens remains, above all else, a master of instrumentation – a man who can bring together sounds, voices and, very often, noises in order to create something that seems natural, and is natural, and is beautiful.
Despite this innate ability to find beauty in noise – a talent Stevens utilised throughout his instrumental BQE album – the better songs on the EP are those not burdened by complexity. The gentler songs, the quieter and less produced tracks, such as ‘Heirloom’ and ‘Arnika’ stand-out as the logical development of Stevens’ work on earlier albums. Few match the simple and effective melodies found on Illinois or, say, Seven Swans, but they remain familiar in the same way a statue is not the same as, but is still a great likeness to the person after whom it is created.
Perhaps most worthy of recognition is the closing track, a eighteen-minute song with an eleven minute intro. Featuring a chanting choir of sorts, and a guitar solo reminiscent of that on Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’, ‘Djohariah’ is a haunting song that takes over your world over the course of its duration, and is the closest Stevens has yet come to matching his unreleased masterpiece, ‘Majesty Snowbird’.
All Delighted People is a collection of songs as bound to disappoint some as it is to enthuse others, and though it is perhaps mismatched as an album, it is not formed to be one. As an EP it serves a purpose – to tide us over until Steven’s next full length album, as opposed to his full length album in the guise of an EP. The songs are not perfect, but they are, for the most part, beautiful, and if they were the work of any other musician, we’d all be more than content with that.
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Release date: 20th August