Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sufjan Stevens

Most artists or groups generally work forward from smaller-scale compositions towards more grandiose productions, such as the Beatles' gradual transition from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Far fewer begin their career with complex concept recordings before moving to a more simplified format, as the new EP from Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People, released atypically on a Friday (August 20th). The unusual release date largely reflected the unexpected record, for which Stevens had offered very little indication anything new would be forthcoming.

While technically an EP – consisting of eight tracks, rather than the typical 10-12 that comprise an LP – in more customary Stevens fashion, it's not short. At just seconds shy of a full hour, several Weezer or Ramones albums could have fit inside. Moreover, the collection is unmistakably part of the Stevens milieu, with no shortage of choir voices, horns, strings and the general grandiosity that informed his state-inspired previous albums, 2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois, which served as bookends for 2004's Seven Swans. However, a several tracks are as minimal as any he has produced to date, backed by acoustic guitar or piano, rather than a full orchestra.

The collection's center are dual versions of the title track, the opening version dubbed as "Original" with the latter appearing five tracks later as the "Classic Rock Version." Repeated references to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" (in quotes such as "the people bowed and prayed" and "hello, darkness, my old friend") are mixed with a brief nod to the Lennon/McCartney melody in "A Day in the Life" (specifically, "four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire...") across nearly 12 minutes of french horns, haunting choirs and chaotic string arrangements. It could be considered overwrought if so much of his previous material wasn't already so enormously epic. Meanwhile, its "classic rock" counterpart might not reflect influences like Zeppelin or The Who, but moreso the Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa varieties. A gentle drum part gives way to a Zappa-esque electric guitar figure that never sounds settled. At just over eight minutes, its by no means radio friendly (even for 70's-era AM radio) and still far shorter than its predecessor.

As a stark counterpoint to the title tracks, Stevens presents several more basic numbers, such as "Enchanting Ghost," "Heirloom" and "Arnika," that emphasize the artist's wounded Thom Yorke-style singing more than his well-noted skills at arrangement. While none are particularly ebullient (for instance, he spends several measures in the latter of these tracks lamenting that he's "tired of life"), they do offer a different take on Stevens' skills as a songwriter, conveying emotion via sincerity rather than spectacle. Of course, that intimacy doesn't apply to closing track "Djohariah," with levels of bombast, intricacy and chaos more commonly associated with his work across more than 17 minutes of All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison flavor.

Come for: "All Delighted People"
Stay for: "Enchanting Ghost"
You'll be surprised by: "Heirloom" (mostly because Stevens manages to round-off a song in under three minutes)

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