Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People EP
Sufjan's sounds of silence
The first proper collection of Sufjan Stevens songs in five years starts small: just Stevens's voice trembling over a gently lowing choir. It gets bigger eventually, adding strings and horns and timpani and gradually expanding to an 11-minute opus that takes on American superficiality while extensively quoting Simon & Garfunkel. How's that for a comeback?
Stevens always had a thing for grand entrances. He owned the early part of the '00s owing mostly to two records, the small, autobiographical Michigan and the bigger, conceptual Illinois, twin pinnacles in an era of quiet alongside Antony and the Johnsons, Devendra Banhart and the Decemberists. But things have gone pear-shaped in the decade's back half, with bands like Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear taking Stevens's penchant for layered harmonies and elaborate orchestrations and turning them inside-out, favoring the cockeyed as much as the classicist.
So Stevens, wisely, has scaled back. Despite the fact that its bookended by two songs that push past the 10-minute mark, All Delighted People is mostly Sufjan in Miniature, a refreshingly modest affair that doesn't break its back trying to give Steve Reich a run for his money. Even conceptually, he's shifted to short story mode, junking big concepts about history and geography in favor of personal narratives. In the bare, lovely "Enchanting Ghost," he coos, "If it pleases you to leave me, just go," over a gently pirouetting guitar figure. "The Owl and the Tanager" is even lighter, just Stevens singing softly about personal trauma ("In seven hours, I consider death/ and your father called you yell at me") over a sleepwalking piano. This is largely a good thing; there were times on Illinois it seemed Stevens was more interested in the arrangements than the song, and clearing out some of the window dressing allows him to instead showcase his oft-forgotten strengths: the eerie, delicate timbre of his voice, his knack for snowflake-fragile melodies, his ability to turn out a heart-stopping phrase with the subtlety of a thief. Even its more outré moments are the work of just one person — like the bent-steel Neil Young guitar solo that runs wild over the beginning of "Djohariah."
If there's a spiritual and sonic cousin to People, it's the records Mark Kozelek has been making as Sun Kil Moon: small, personal statements that make their impact with tenderness instead of grandiosity. "Could I have it all?" he asks in "Arnika," "Could I have you for a night in the warmth of your bed?" That, in a single line, is All Delighted People — the whole world boiling down to an intimate moment shared between two people. After five years of relative silence, People is the perfect, subtle return.