One wonders what types of thoughts and ideas would be discovered during a woodland hike through the forest of Sufjan Steven’s mind. One would expect to find strange things, delightful things. As one interviewer wrote of him, “It feels like he’s from another time or planet…removed from the everyday in a way that speaks to either incredible discipline or admirable disregard.” “Removed from the everyday.” To be sure, one would find kaleidoscopes of colors, vibrant and verdant foliage, and plenty of playfulness – bashful, furry creatures singing three and four and five-part harmonies, voices cascading and echoing strains simultaneously joyful and somber.
Each of Stevens’ albums reveal unique regions of his imagination and surprise in their own ways: from the inventive, Americana-celebrating tunes of Come on, Feel the Illinoise! to the meditative, hymn-like songs of Seven Swans. He consistently weaves themes and moods and ideas together to create humble yet ardent collage-works. In his warmup-act-of-sorts to his long awaited full length album The Age of ADZ, Sufjan uncovers new wonders with All Delighted People (EP), delighting in sounds familiar and unusual to his oeuvre that have been harmonizing about his forest for too long, exigently pouring into a handful of songs worth wandering and relishing through.
ADP (Bio majors, don’t get confused), for all its wild experiments with full size, gospel-sounding choirs, shuddering electric guitar solos, and full brass sections, is an organic progression from Stevens’ past creations. In the title track, veteran listeners will recognize trombone licks from “They are Night Zombies!…” (Illinoise), guitar solos from “The Upper Peninsula” (Greetings from Michigan) and “Pittsfield” (The Avalanche), choral sounds from “Vito’s Ordination Song” (Michigan), even excerpts of flute flutters and string plucks used in the BQE an orchestral piece centered upon the Brooklyn Queens Expressway released in 2009. The pieces don’t feel forced together – jigsaws fitting flush rather than anxiously jammed into one another. “Enchanting Ghost” flows with the same sheets-drying-in-the-sunny-Midwestern-breeze spirit channeled in “Casimir Pulaski Day” (Illinoise) and “The Mistress Witch From McClure…” (The Avalanche). The third track, “Heirloom,” also balances the eager energy of “All Delighted People,” followed by the whimsical yet earnestly metaphysical ruminations of “From the Mouth of Gabriel” that includes equal parts choir and toy piano.
Stevens, though running well the entire time, hits a new stride later in the album with the Classic Rock version of “ADP” (which feels more Folk Rock than anything) and the final song, Djohariah. He conducts choruses that never feel out of place, extending songs to twelve and seventeen minutes on the EP that feel ordered and focused while nuanced enough to be worthy of multiple listens. Steven makes a bold move, making songs of extended length on a pop album, with a listening culture ever more focused on bite-sized singles, yet it proves a worthwhile one.
The lyrics of the album, like a good poem, defy convention, yet aren’t obscure enough to dissuade a listener from mulling them over to find their concealed meanings. Sampling plenty from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” Sufjan melds his own voice to reveal emotion and relationship, fear and hope, and life at its realest. For Stevens, this is a happy task. His work imaginatively blends childlike wonder with earnest existential explorations that, like his other albums, ripens with continued listenings.
To say that Stevens is “removed from the everyday” is an inaccurate claim, for one whose tweets read, “If I concentrate hard enough, I think I can feel every crisscrossing thread in the sofa against each strand of hair” or “My dreams are B movies and flipped tracks, tactile fixations, little sentiments, a partridge feather caught up in muddy brambles,” is someone with his nose buried in the everyday, yet interacting with it different than most. His imagination spills into his life, pulling the everyday into his songs and transfiguring it, encouraging us to see, with fresh eyes, the beauty of the ordinary.
The last song on the EP, “Djohariah,” named after his younger sister, is a celebration and encouragement of her life: “Go on! Little sister! For your world is yours, world is yours./ All the wilderness of the world is yours…all the fullness of the world is yours.” Like Stevens, we each have wildernesses in our minds and hearts, and he shows that we ought not be afraid to wander, to look, to listen. The trees might be green, the birds might be singing. All might be delighted.
All Delighted People (EP) was the precursor to Sufjan’s latest full-length album, The Age of ADZ – both of which are available here.