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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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14 October 2009

Too much, too much, too much: A short attention span essay about Sufjan Stevens & Liberace

I. THE SURFACE

Maybe you heard about Sufjan Stevens’ recent US tour. Maybe you read my braggadocious post about the (tiny) role I had in kicking off this latest round of shows.

Last Wednesday I saw the last gig of the run, one of four sold out New York shows. Let’s take advantage of what the internet has to offer and kick off this discussion with one of the new tunes he debuted. I’ll start with my favorite, the relatively straightforward “Age of Adz”:

Now let me admit, I came away from the show feeling both intrigued and baffled. As one of my fellow concertgoers said to me that night, the music borrowed all the signifiers of rock but contained no actual rocking. Add to that a liberal dose of spacious textures from electronic music and jazz. Another friend left early, complaining that the music was a tepid mess.

And, well, I sort of agree with these sentiments. My befuddlement can best be expressed by a series of comparative thought experiments.

- Imagine if James Taylor aspired to sound like Miles Davis
- Imagine if Cat Stevens took a greater interest in Frank Zappa than the prophet Muhammad
- Imagine if there was a male equivalent to Joni Mitchell’s experience of getting lost in a jazz hole
- Imagine if Erik Satie decided to compose his take on jock jams, more or less missing the point of what jock jams are

In case you’re mistaking these comparisons for disses, here’s a last one:

- Imagine if there were more young(ish) musicians making music so strong & brave you felt comfortable namedropping them alongside such heavyweight peers

Let’s go deeper into this with a second song, “There’s Too Much Love,” which reminds me, alternatively, of Prince and…
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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