Friday, August 20, 2010

TESTIMONIAL: "All Delighted People," a.k.a the Classic Bait-and-Switch

The first two songs on “All Delighted People,” Sufjan Stevens’ new 8-song EP, will break your heart. If you’re at all familiar with the singer-songwriter’s 2005 release “Illinois,” this won’t come as a surprise. As on his earlier offering, the backbone of “All Delighted People” is Stevens’ voice; a voice without a single speck of grit in it. With “Illinois,” Stevens used his voice as a jumping-off point, skillfully weaving layers of instrumentation in and around it. Conversely, “All Delighted People” starts on—what for this artist at least—is an almost bare note. “Tomorrow you’ll see it through,” he warbles. The soprano “ooh”s that back him up lend the song the air of a tragic march—if there is such a thing—being sung by a church choir. This notion is reinforced when the ensemble is swept up into the first refrain: “all delighted people raise your hands,” Stevens preaches. You exhale. You’re willing to forgive him the conceit of borrowing so many lyrics from “The Sound of Silence."

“Enchanting Ghost” is the best song on the album and, at only 3:40, it’s one of the shortest
. Here Stevens takes the stripped-down, brutal honesty of the first track one step further: the melodic parts are sparser, there are fewer instruments, and what little there are he mutes or sets slightly off-pitch.

These two tracks trick the listener into thinking the EP marks something new. Don’t get me wrong, I like “Illinois.” In college, my friends and I would mute “Planet Earth” and watch it with “Illinois” in the background, and we all agreed that it was a suitable soundtrack. That’s how good of an album it is.

But Stevens’ one fault is that he’s too much of an artist. Even when a song on “Illinois” is momentarily cacophonous, the pieces inevitably fall back together like a glass jigsaw puzzle. His lyrics are the same way. They’re personal, profound, but saturated with awareness of just how beautiful they are. Stevens never puts a toe out of line. So unless you’re in the mood for divine, straight-laced beauty—which has its place—you’re not in the mood for his music.

After those first songs, the EP moves back into familiar territory. What struck the listener at first as a kind of stripped-down honesty very quickly becomes a monotonous drone. Songs like “Heirloom” and “Arnika” plod stubbornly forward, indifferent to drooping eyelids.

You could forgive Stevens’ reliance on Simon and Garfunkel in the first iteration of “All Delighted People,” but it’s more blatant in the second one, the so-called “Classic Rock Version,” and by this point you’re no longer willing to play along. The first one is better anyway—it moves along at a more natural pace, and that’s saying a lot of a 12-minute song. Why should we have to sit through another 8 minutes that just isn’t as good?

Because as in “Illinois” at its worst, Stevens gets carried away showing us what he’s capable of. With this EP, he could have revealed that he’s a flawed human being like any other, except a little more extraordinary--someone who can show us the beauty in our own imperfections. But he failed.

--Julia Rose

P.S. You can download the EP for $5 from Asthmatic Kitty: here's ze link