It's about time Sufjan Stevens got back to writing songs, having spent the last few years filming and scoring his urban documentary The BBQ and transposing his earlier electronic concept album about the Chinese Zodiac, Enjoy Your Rabbit, for the string quartet version "Run Rabbit Run".
Finally, with "All Delighted People" – apparently an EP, despite being an hour long – he returns to the song for the first time since 2006, and it's a relief, like a master chef getting back to the main course after time out as a pastry-chef.
The download-only album is built around two takes of the title-track, opening with an 11-minute version which features wistful strings and ponderous horns in uneasy alliance in front of a chilly choral curtain. Stevens has described it as "a dramatic homage to the apocalypse, existential ennui and Paul Simon's "Sound Of Silence", which just about covers it: line quotes from Simon's classic ("and the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they'd made", etc) share song-space with religious proclamation while the arrangement sweeps from quietly meditative to vertiginously dramatic, leaving one thoroughly ragged by the conclusion. The later 8-minute "classic rock" version opens Illinoise-style with banjo, before the choir and gently riffing horns add warmer textures, but it's still a far cry from any classic rock I've encountered, despite the fragmented guitar and synth with which it closes.
The impassioned whimsy of "Enchanting Ghost" brings to mind The Incredible String Band, as Stevens sketches a backdrop of guitar and banjo fingerpicking behind a lyric encouraging separation: "And if it pleases you to leave me, just go – stopping you would stifle your enchanting ghost". The opposite desire underpins "From The Mouth Of Gabriel", on which Reichian pulsing reeds underscore prepared piano, choir and synthesiser, a strange thrumming commotion slipping slowly out of sync; and "The Owl & The Tanager" once more finds Stevens drawing on inscrutable personal events, related over reflective piano quadruplets that develop an incantatory power – an art-song with roots in Schubert lieder as much as folk or pop.
The same could hardly be said of "Djohariah", which concludes the album with a "17-minute guitar jam for single mothers" – specifically, Sufjan's sister Djohariah, whose name is chanted in a lowing murmur accompanied by mild horns and piano, alternating with bursts of jagged electric guitar noise in the manner of Neil Young's "Cowgirl In The Sand", until Stevens' lyric begins some 12 minutes in, a comforting affirmation that she's doing the right thing, that "the mother is the glorious victorious" and that "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". It's a beautiful piece of work which seems to encompass all the angst and painful shame of the situation before blossoming into the most positive of resolutions, further confirmation that Stevens is one of the most important talents working in music today.
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