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22 August 2010

Sufjan Stevens’ All Delighted People

I had some ambivalence about the small venue tour Sufjan went on last fall — the music’s Liberace-like indulgence, the way his band consciously abandoned structure but then, perhaps, overshot that effort and abandoned good taste. Philosophically it was intriguing; the music that resulted felt a bit forced. It meandered where, before, it was compulsively engaging.

I’m only a few listens into his new release, an EP titled All Delighted People, but it excites me on a number of levels. I like way he released it: an intentionally desultory approach wherein it just kind of popped up on a wonky, semi-established internet site with a rough hewn but charming cover, the kind of image an ambitious teenage kid might cut & paste on the cover of a mix tape or CD. (Sidenote: Do people still make mixtapes?)

I like the weird heft of it — a 60 minute EP! — and the through-line it maintains from Sufjan’s recent public statements to the musical execution of the recording. In a long interview with Paste Magazine, he had expressed a lack of faith in established musical formats (via Pitchfork). i.e.

    “I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download? Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long? They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now. So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore. I no longer have faith in the song.”

Most importantly I like the music in and of itself. He’s tamped down the “too much jazz” of last year’s tour, but maintains the loose intensity of the music he played and an emotional register which is even more idiosyncratic than the songs he’s released in the past. On the website for his label Asthmatic Kitty he calls it “a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Paul Simon’s ‘Sounds of Silence,’” though it feels as much like a jazz/classical/noise version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

It’s loose, it’s messy, it’s redolent of the 1970s and it has soul. It sounds like a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

PS – The morning after writing this post, while actually listening to it on a Sunday morning, the influence of church music also came to the fore: the ecstasies and intimacies and oh-so-human breakdowns; the gender-neutral chorus wherein the vocal registers of the singers remains ambiguously castrati-like; the final resolution of the songs which sets a certain tone: one of hard-earned uplift and hard-won peace.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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