Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All Delighted People EP

There's a note of irony in Sufjan Stevens' career that any hipster among his fans is sure to appreciate.  His greatest success by any measure--commercial, critical, or artistic--came from the same subset of his music that spurred a career-jeopardizing existential crisis.

Michigan (2003) wasn't Stevens' first album--it was his third--but it was the first one that anyone paid attention to.  The Avalanche (2006) was the most listenable B-sides/rarities/outtakes album since the mid-1990s' Beatles Anthology series, plus it was Stevens' only album to date to crack the mainstream Billboard charts.  And Illinois, released in 2005, has already taken its place among the greatest indie albums of the last decade, possibly of all time.

Together, these three form the beginning--or what ought to have been the beginning--of Stevens' supremely ambitious "Fifty States Project."  Now, tragically, these three appear like they're forming the entirety of the project.  The grand plan was to write albums inspired by each of the fifty states, of which Michigan and Illinois were the first two, and The Avalanche carried the momentum of Illinois to become its partner or sequel album.

Sufjan Stevens hasn't necessarily been forthcoming about his intentions for the future of the project.  2006 gave us "yes, of course I'm serious about finishing it."  In 2008, we got the sea change of an opinion to "no, I'm not going to finish it, and I was pretty much joking the whole time."  And by 2010, these prognostications more or less moderated to "I probably won't finish it, but I won't rule out working on it more in the future."

It would be a shame if he didn't put more work into it.  While 2004's Seven Swans remains popular, and undoubtedly A Sun Came!, Enjoy Your Rabbit/Run Rabbit Run, and even The BQE enjoy their own followings, it's the Fifty States Project that put Sufjan Stevens on the map and has produced his best work.  But it's possible that like many artists' magna opera, Stevens poured just a little too much of himself into it.

The self-destruction that threatened to follow saw Stevens giving quotes like "I've lost faith in the album" and of the song as units of musical expression.  Nowhere did the breakdown appear more evident than in 2009's The BQE a mess of an orchestral tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which was somewhere between horror and genius--but even fans have nowhere where to place it.  We had no idea whether or not Stevens would release a conventional album with words ever again.

Therefore, the ambush of a release of All Delighted People was even more of a shock to fans.  (And if that weren't enough, a full-length is planned for October.)  Conventional it is not--apparently Stevens wasn't kidding when he hinted at abandoning the traditional song/album structure--but it does have words, it has a few remnants of convention about it, and it has a whole lot of content.  The EP weighs in at 8 songs that last a total of more than 57 minutes (which many artists would be content to market as a full-length album).  Do the math, and you'll find that the average song length is more than seven minutes--which isn't to say that Stevens has mundanely released an EP with eight seven-minute songs.  Rather, the shortest is barely three minutes, the second-longest is eleven, and the longest is a hefty seventeen-minute jam session.

The middle of the album, tracks two through five, are where the album is at its most conventional and immediately accessible.  "Enchanted Ghost" is the shortest track and seems the most like material that might have made it onto Seven Swans or Michigan.  It's still my favorite track on the album, and while the following few tracks occasionally lose energy or direction, fans expecting Stevens' earlier work will be the most at home in this chunk of music.

"All Delighted People" makes its appearance as two tracks, which are not precisely the same song in terms of content and are drastically different songs in terms of style.  Both, but particularly the first title track, feature some jarring dissonances and abrupt stylistic changes.  It wasn't the sort of thing I was sure I liked at first; in fact, one of my first thoughts was "this will take some getting used to."  But here's the thing: by the second time I played through the EP, I wasn't just used to it--I was into it.

Aside from more dissonance and sharper transitions than we're used to, a few stylistic departures from Stevens' earlier work pervade the EP.  Electronic effects and wailing, meandering electric guitar solos show up more in "Djohariah", the seventeen-minute track that closes the album, than in Stevens' past seven studio albums combined, and they show up throughout the rest of the album as well.  Stevens' falsetto, very much a part of all the music he has released, shows up in All Delighted People as a frailer yet more pronounced version of its old self, less agile and more obvious than it was in the past.

All Delighted People is not Illinois.  Not that anyone really expected it to be--as The Avalanche showed, Stevens clearly could have made the rest of his career into re-releasing Illinois about five times, and he would have been plenty successful doing so.  But there's always been a sense of boundary-pushing in Sufjan Stevens' music, and All Delighted People carries that tradition further than any of his previous albums.

Currently listening: "Magpie to the Morning", Neko Case

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