#4. Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People
There are many examples in the history of popular music of artists throwing their audiences curveballs, seemingly slamming the brakes and jumping tracks out of nowhere: Dylan going electric, the Bee Gees going disco, Vanilla Ice going rap-metal, Darius “Hootie” Rucker going R&B… and then going country… Rarely, however, is anyone afforded the opportunity to see the transition happen. Few stark musical transformations are documented in the form of a self-contained release, and those that do see the light of day tend to be critically panned as misguided identity crises.
Maybe it was a musical identity (or perhaps “mid-career”) crisis that sent Sufjan Stevens spiraling into The Age of Adz, or maybe it was the “debilitating”, “crippling”, and “mysterious” viral infection that abruptly stripped him of his creative output for a time before his latest opus could finally be recorded. Perhaps it was the threat of not being able to write and record at all, or maybe ever again (pure speculation, mind you), that called everything into question. Either way, the departure from his past as the gentle geographic storyteller with modest orchestra in tow, to the wide-eyed, introspective protagonist on a fantastical journey through forests of synthesizers and mazes of drum machines… Well, it might have caught some people off guard – and for those who didn’t jump at the chance to download All Delighted People when it appeared out of nowhere on Bandcamp, it probably did.
But, for those who opted to investigate this mysterious “EP” that emerged out of the void Stevens left with comments about his disenchantment with the full-length as a musical medium and his obsessive completion of an instrumental album devoted to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, All Delighted People seemed poised to be some kind of a message… but what did it mean?
Looking for answers in the lyrics proved difficult. Stevens has offered his share of poetic ambiguities in the past, but the meaning was often evident – here he becomes more cryptic. The gorgeous, sprawling title track begins “Tomorrow you’ll see it through / The clouded-out disguises put you in the room / And though I wandered out alone / A thousand lights pounded on our home / And I remember every sound it made / The clouded-out disguises and the grave / So yeah, I know I’m still afraid / Of letting go of choices I have made / All delighted people raise their hands”. The last line resonates with a choir of voice, and presumably with sarcasm. Later in the song, Stevens quotes Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, a song which Paul Simon once explained “is about youthful alienation… nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone.” These are murky, existential waters on which Stevens seems to be set adrift.
But this confusion should be no surprise, as decisiveness and certainty rarely beget wandering transitions, and for all intents and purposes, that seems to be what All Delighted People is: a segue, a buffer even (unintentional or not), between Stevens’ past and future. Although a good portion of the hour-long EP features the same familiar instrumentation that lent his previous releases their orchestral folk label, there are signs of musical changes – new styles making inroads. The hushed, almost whispered delivery of his pastoral narratives gives way to a plaintive voice, often more projected, and oddly more vulnerable. Twisting multi-note melodies are jammed into single syllables. A minute into “From The Mouth of Gabriel”, bloopy synthesizers descend like analog angels, underscored with beefy sawtooth stabs. The 8-minute “Classic Rock Version” of the title track begins sparsely with Stevens’ most quivering vocals to date and ends with a deterioratioin into a clipped-out cacophony, with short-circuiting guitars smashing into buzzing synths. As Jeff Foxworthy would say, “Here’s your sign”.
Ultimately, All Delighted People only goes so far to put The Age of Adz into context. They are separate, self-contained works, to be sure. But while Adz seems an exhaustive, exploratory vision reigned into a barely congruous package, this EP plays in part like a vestige of Stevens’ musical past – a page being turned, frozen in time between one chapter and the next. Perhaps it prepared fans and critics alike for where the story was going – readied them to appreciate and accept the changes. And though it may not explain exactlywhy this transformation was set in motion, it provides us with a fascinating opportunity to watch it happen – one that listeners are rarely afforded.