The Problem of Joy: A Review of Sufjan Stevens’s All Delighted People EP
Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People EP (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2010). Visit here to purchase the album.
If you don’t have the proper systems in place to catch every scrap of Sufjan Stevens related news on the Internet, you might have missed his reported existential crisis. It was a scary moment for fans. Sufjan hadn’t produced a proper LP since 2005’s Illinoise, and then last October he said, “I’m wondering what am I doing? What is a song even? I’m questioning, what’s the point of a song? Is a song antiquated? Does it have any power any more?”1 If you don’t think these are serious questions, remember this is how we lost Jeff Mangum. Sufjan wouldn’t have been the first artist to call it quits at his creative peak. People were speculating that he was going to fade into the background, producing other artists, working on low-key collaborations, wandering around Brooklyn collecting field recordings for his sound collages. It could happen. You can’t trust the ones who aren’t in it for the money.
Fortunately, Sufjan wasn’t going to quit without a fight. You can’t contemplate your way out of an existential crisis. Contemplation gets you in, but it can’t get you out. Apart from death, the only solution is action, whether it be a leap of faith or an act of will. I don’t know how Sufjan classified his next move, but act he did. He planned a tour of small venues to “workshop” new material.
I attended one of the first shows on the tour, so I had no idea what to expect. A couple of weeks earlier, Sufjan had appeared at a festival and played through his album Seven Swans. Seven Swans is one of my favorite albums of all time, so I would have been happy to hear it. I even thought I might prefer it to hearing new songs. Life is a little simpler when your favorite artists just stick to the material you fell in love with them for in the first place. Why risk disappointment by asking them to keep reinventing themselves time after time? I’d hate to have to qualify my love of Sufjan’s music some day by saying, “I’m a fan of early Sufjan,” the way I say, “I’m a fan of early Dylan.” The artists who quit or die young spare us the displeasure of watching them decay.
But Sufjan didn’t go on tour to relive the past. He was there to fight his way through a crisis. The first four songs he played were new. They were not acoustic. They featured no high-school band affectations or symphonic accompaniment. They were long, sprawling, and unconventionally structured. They were electronic, but they were also more ambitious and more loaded with potential than anything on Enjoy Your Rabbit. In other words, they were like nothing Sufjan had ever played before.
To my surprise, after hearing Sufjan and his band play the new songs, I was relatively bored when he dialed back the bombast and played an acoustic set of old favorites. I imagine he wanted to give the fans what he thought they wanted. But with the exception of a sublime performance of “In the Devil’s Territory,” I felt like the old songs didn’t have the same impact that they had at previous shows, at least not one after the other, and not after the new material.
I went to a Paul Simon concert in 2001, and when he sang “The Sounds of Silence,” it was great, but that was my first (and last) live Paul Simon experience. Maybe that performance wouldn’t have meant the same thing to me if I had heard him sing that song year after year, every year since 1965. It’s not that good music doesn’t age well or that I get tired of my favorite songs (you should look at my iPod and see how many times I’ve replayed certain tracks). It’s just that songs I’ve loved for years are already a part of me, so unless it’s one of those songs that simply must be heard live or the artist has a new take on it, then maybe I don’t need to hear it in concert again and again, not the way I need to hear new music.
New music opens up doors in your mind, doors that have never been opened, doors you didn’t know existed until the moment the music starts. That was what was at stake when Sufjan played his new material that night. You could sense that he was working something out in this music. It didn’t all come off perfectly. The band stopped and started. Sometimes Sufjan stumbled over the words. But he was fumbling around in the dark for those unopened doors, and from time to time he found them. I left thinking I would rather hear Sufjan’s experiments than his greatest hits.
The All Delighted People EP is a collection of Sufjan experiments. If his last tour was a proactive step toward working through a crisis, then this EP is the next step. It doesn’t feel like a destination as much as a waypoint on the road to somewhere else. There are two versions of the song “All Delighted People,” both of them over eight minutes long; a seventeen-minute track named “Djohariah” after Sufjan’s sister, a studio version of a song listed here as “The Owl and the Tanager”; which was previously known to collectors of Sufjan bootlegs as “Barn Owl, Night Killer”; and four shorter songs, which taken together are no less daring than the longer tracks.
Apart from the obvious fact that there are two versions of the same eight-minute song on this EP, it doesn’t flow together like Sufjan’s previous albums. One track doesn’t seamlessly bleed into the next, because there is no overarching mood or theme. This isn’t a carefully crafted meditation like Seven Swans or an organized song cycle like Enjoy Your Rabbit. If there’s a principle that holds it together, I’d argue, it’s the spirit of experimentation, a sometimes desperate experimentation, that is a response to the kind of creative crisis which forces an artist to either change or die. There are many places on this EP when you can hear Sufjan deconstructing and reorganizing his own sound. It is simultaneously backward- and forward-looking, combining elements from his former albums and from the new sound he brought to his last tour. There are electronic bursts, ragged electric guitar solos, sweet acoustic melodies, and even a Welcome Wagon–style church choir. Lyrically, Sufjan uses many of his old tricks (biblical references, sweet affirmations, semi-autobiographical details), but something is different. It’s almost as if he is allowing himself to keep more of the literal meaning of the songs to himself than he used to. He’s trusting in the songs themselves to work without trying to force an interpretation on the listener with complex images or plot arcs. There are more gaps. The songs are more open. In his two versions of “All Delighted People,” Sufan even allows Paul Simon’s original lyrics to infect his own—words from “The Sounds of Silence” weave in and out of Sufjan’s like a parasite of influence. We’re left asking, what has been done and what is left to do? Between the Sufjan we already know and all the great music that has influenced him, is there any space left for him to reinvent himself? Do we really need a new Sufjan Stevens album? The results of this introspection may border on chaos, but all together this EP makes me feel like anything could happen. Sufjan’s next LP could either be his best album or a complete failure.
I’d leave it at that if it weren’t for the fact that as I’ve listened to this EP repeatedly over the past two weeks, one track has emerged from the primordial soup as a kind of miracle. “From the Mouth of Gabriel” is the song in which every one of Sufjan’s gambits and evasions pays off. He throws out traditional song structure and crafts a four-minute experience in which every segment of the song builds on the last. It begins with a simple piano part and Sufjan singing. He allows his voice to sound downright sloppy, almost strained. A choir comes in and out. There is an electronic flash flood at 1:05. It’s over by 1:23. Near the end, there is a mess of electronic sounds, a flute, woodwinds, and who knows what else. It’s something between orchestral accompaniment and the orchestra warming up. The lyrics work, despite the fact that they never cohere into a comprehensible story. At the beginning of the song, Gabriel seems to be a person who has died. By the end, he is the angel at the annunciation. There is a plea for a loved one to stay. There are promises of forgiveness. Is that a Borges reference in the second verse?2 I have no idea what the song means in any objective sense, but subjectively it’s perfect. It’s not just that Sufjan has managed to collect an amazing number of random musical and lyrical elements in one song and make them work. It’s that each element adds something essential to the song with the result that I can’t ignore the feeling in my chest when the song reaches its climax. Whatever Sufjan did on this track, whether or not he could explain it as an artist or I could explain it as a listener, the end result is joy.
I don’t know if joy is proof that God exists or not, but listening to “From the Mouth of Gabriel” forces me to ask if it is possible that my psyche so craves meaning, immortality, and forgiveness that it would use this chaotic sequence of words and sounds as material for manufactured hope. Could I be so weak, so incapable of staring into the abyss that I’m reduced to finding truth in the gaps left between these data points of words and sounds? In the end, when you consider everything that happens in the human mind when it hears music, from the baby who is put to sleep with a lullaby to the grown man who is moved by a melody, what in the end is a song? My inner-atheist can’t rest with these questions unanswered. This is the problem of joy, and I think of it as the last line of defense for the believer. When the biblical scholars have proven that the Holy Scriptures were written by con men, and the scientists have plugged the last gaps in their theory of everything, then we’ll still have to explain music and what it does to us.
I don’t know if Sufjan has found answers to the questions he was asking last autumn, but I’d argue that with the release of this EP, he’s successfully shared those questions with his audience. I don’t have the answers, but I’m not ready to turn off the music. This feels like something we might be able to work our way through if we keep listening. Or at the very least, the problem we’re left with is one worth having.
1. Sufjan Stevens, interview by Vish Khanna, “Sufjan Stevens Interview: An Excerpt,” Vish Khanna, October 12, 2009, http://vishkhanna.com/2009/10/12/sufjan-stevens-interview-an-excerpt/.
2. See Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004).
Andy Barnes lives with his wife in Washington DC, where he works for a nonprofit. He enjoys reading and listening to music.