Album Review: Sufjan Stevens, “All Delighted People” (2010)

Patience has never been my strong suit.  I don’t like waiting for things, especially things I’m really excited for.  When I first began listening to Sufjan Stevens, I was under the impression that the banjo-wielding, singer/songwriter would be releasing an album about each of the 50 States.  Such a project seemed like a guarantee that I’d be hearing new music from him at least once a year, which was great, considering that I was a big fan.

So he released his first two 50 States albums.  Then nothing happened.  And I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Finally, five years after his last full-length album (Come on Feel The Illinoise, 2005), I heard that Stevens was releasing an EP.  I remember being so excited about it that I downloaded it first thing the morning it was released.

All Delighted People didn’t disappoint.  True, it took awhile for the eclectic mix of songs to grow on me.  And okay, the title track and the ending track are a bit long- and at times, tedious- but it’s Sufjan Stevens we’re talking about here, and he was FINALLY releasing new music.  I was thrilled either way.

The aforementioned title track boasts an 11:38 time, which is a bit daunting for the start of an EP.  The track begins with a choir backing Stevens as he sings with his signature soft vocals.  The music sounds like something from the 70’s classic-rock era, which is a bit of a departure from the indie/folk-rock sound we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing from him.  I’ll admit, this song is a bit all over the place; there’s all sorts of dissonant guitar chords, and loud instrumental bits, and the choir’s shrieking is a bit distracting in some parts.  Thankfully, the song winds down a bit, leading into a quiet ending, where Stevens’ vocals and quiet harmonizing from the choir are emphasized.  Lyrically, the track seems to be a reflection on humanity as a whole, but like many of Stevens’ songs, I suppose the meaning could be interpreted a plethora of ways (I can count on one hand the number of “straightforward” songs he has written).  Still, I do manage to have a few favorite lines towards the end of the song (“Oh, I love a lot/Oh, I love you from the top of my heart/And you can see through my mistakes/Oh, I’ll tell it to you now/Oh, I’ll tell it from the top of my heart/…I tried my best I tried in vain/Oh, but the world is a mess”).  Truthfully, the song is kind of messy – the ebb and flow of the music, combined with the lyrical context makes it for a trying start to the album – but Stevens’ manages to pull it together at the end.  Still, it’s not my favorite track, by far.

One such favorite would be Enchanting Ghost.  The song is a complete departure from All Delighted People; the music stays quiet and unassuming throughout, and the track takes up nearly a fourth of the time that it’s predecessor does.  Stevens’ trademark banjo makes an appearance, and it makes up most of the melody, leaving more room for the somber lyrics (“Don’t carry on carrying efforts, no no/Somewhere there’s a room for each of us to grow/And if it pleases you to leave me, just go”).  There’s a definite theme of sadness here (as apparent in the lyrics of a wilting relationship), but the song, and Stevens’ delivery is just so pretty that I can rarely skip past this track.

The same goes for Heirloom, a lovely mid-tempo folk song.  One of my favorite things about Sufjan Stevens’ songwriting, is that he is capable of writing such emotionally charged songs in completely gorgeous and unique ways.  The comfort the narrator offers to his friend or lover in this song is so stunningly beautiful (“When the devil’s pushing down/When your mourning has a sound/And you hesitate to laugh/How quickly will your joy pass?/And when you walk inside I feel the door/I’ll never let it push your arms no more/And when your legs give out just lie right down/And I will kiss you till your breath is found”).  The track is a love song, essentially, but not in a conventional “I love you forever” sort of way, and I applaud it for that.  Stevens’ delivery is appropriately earnest, adding to the track’s overall beauty.

Sufjan Stevens tour

Another favorite of mine is Arnika, a track that people either seem to love or hate.  I will admit that the song is very depressing, and I did seem to enjoy it most during a depressing part of my own life, but I believe that even without that personal connection, I’d still appreciate this track for what it is.  Again, the banjo makes up most of the sparse melody, and Stevens’ sings the song slowly, almost exerting no energy while singing it, which goes in hand with the lyrical context. I did some online research a while back and learned that “arnica” is a plant, which can be poisonous if too much of it is digested.  I’m not sure if the song is named after the plant, but it does make sense with the suicidal lyrics (“I’m tired of life; I’m tired of waiting for someone/I’m tired of prices; I’m tired of waiting for something” and particularly the final line, “No, I’m not afraid of death or strife or injury, accidents, they are my friends…”).  Even the quiet echoes of “I’m going, I’m going” in the background lead the listener to believe that a suicide is being planned, and I promise you the creaking sound towards the end of the song is that of a rope swinging back and forth- ala, someone being hanged.  It does sound a bit morbid when I describe it, but the song is beautiful, if not heartbreaking and a bit unsettling.

The Owl and the Tanager is a song I still haven’t really figured out.  I know that a tanager is a small songbird, and I can gather that the owl and the tanager are allusions to the people in the song.  On the surface, it seems like a betrayal between two friends (perhaps in the vein of one of Stevens’ earlier songs, The Predatory Wasp), but I feel as though I’m only scratching the surface of the meaning here, as it’s easy to do with most of Stevens’ songs.  More than anything, I just love listening to Stevens’ vocal delivery here; his voice sounds so fragile and hushed- almost sweet and angelic at times- and I love the fragility in which he delivers certain lines (“You touched me inside of my cage/Beneath my shirt, your hands embraced me” in particular).  I’d really just love to sit down with Sufjan and ask him about a handful of his songs- what they really mean to him, and what he was feeling when he wrote them; I think that’d be the most rewarding fan experience for me.

One of the only disappointing songs on the EP is From the Mouth of Gabriel.  The one positive I can appoint to it is that it’s a least a bit more musically upbeat than the other ballads surrounding it; there are cheerful backing vocalists, and a tinkly piano that makes me smile.  However, the track doesn’t stand out much more other than that, and even the lyrics fail to make a real impression on me.  There is also a “classic rock” version of All Delighted People towards the end of the EP, which is funny to me, because I thought the original version was already very “classic rock” sounding.  This version is stripped back by a few minutes and features a bit less noise and more acoustic guitar, but other than that, seems very much the same as the original version.  Stevens’ released a few different versions of his hit song Chicagoon a B-side album, and I remembered enjoying those, because they were all so different than the original song.  Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t translate as well here.  I suppose, though, if you want a shorter, less frenetic version of All Delighted People, you may be better off listening to the classic rock version.

The EP comes to an end with Djohariah.  A few notes on this song: 1) It’s 17 minutes long.  Yes, SEVENTEEN MINUTES long.  It is the second-longest song in Stevens’ catalog, beat only by Impossible Soul, but that comes a bit later, so I digress.  2) You will find out how to pronounce Djohariah by the end of the song, so don’t worry.  Whether or not you’ll be able to spell it without double-checking the track listing few times, I can’t promise.  3) About 11 of the 17 minutes is spent with an instrumental section and no real singing.  It’s long.  It can be tiresome.  It’s a bit unnecessary.  But, ultimately, I think it’s worth it.

This track definitely has a sort of classic rock sound to it- the guitar and harmonizing in the beginning sounds like something from a Pink Floyd album, or any other 70’s rock band you can think of.  About eight minutes in, Stevens’ choir starts quietly chanting “Djohari- Djohariah”, which goes on for another few minutes before the actual song begins.  I won’t lie to you- even though I’m fanatical about Stevens, I almost always skip the intro to this song.  It’s awesome to listen to on the first listen, or maybe even a few more times, if you’re a fan of the sound, but I don’t enjoy it enough to want to sit through eleven minutes of “oohs” and “aahs” and electric guitar.

Finally, Stevens’ starts singing the first line of the song in that quiet voice of his. It turns out that Stevens’ wrote this song for his younger sister (say it with  me now: AWWWW!), which explains the very detailed, personal lyrics (“And the man who left you for dead/He’s the heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater/You don’t need that man in your life/And you worked yourself to the bone/While the people say what they say, it’s the neighbors anyway/They don’t know what’s good for your life”).   Stevens’ own description of this song is a “17-minute guitar jam-for-single-mothers”, which is apparent in the chorus of, “For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious/The mother of the heart of the world/…For the world is yours, world is yours”).  This song has the complete ability to make me cry, and not in the depressing Arnika kind of way; more in the way that song is so touching and inspiring, without being corny.  Even the handclaps towards the end, Stevens’ lovely falsetto, and the final lines (“For you’re beautiful, beautiful/All the fullness of the world is yours”) go far at cheering me up on a bad day.

I think Sufjan Stevens has a reputation for being grandiose in both his songwriting and musicianship, and All Delighted People is no exception.  The length of it makes it less of an EP and more of a normal pop musician’s full-length album, but that’s okay.  For a fan that waited 5 years for some new music, I could hardly be picky.  And if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy every second of it, too.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. All Delighted People (Original Version)
2. Enchanting Ghost
3. Heirloom
4. From the Mouth of Gabriel
5. The Owl and the Tanager
6. All Delighted People (Classic Rock Version)
7. Arnika
8. Djohariah

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