This is a record that is going to divide opinion. Like many I became aware of Sufjan Stevens during the Michigan and Illinoise period, and like many I absolutely adored those records. I then explored his back catalogue and generally became a huge fan. Offerings since Illinois / Avalanch have been fairly sparse, and not so much to my liking, so the anticipation for this release has been building for some time. The various outtakes and other tracks released on the All Delighted People EP
wetted the appetite - but again left me feeling underwhelmed, wondering if perhaps he had lost his way a bit - or perhaps just his new way was not to my liking.
On hearing this record my first reaction was one of confusion. Here once again was the Sufjan that I loved, fantastic tunes beautifully sung, and intensely moving. But interspersed with great dollops of electronic squelching, and worst of all, what sounded like vocoder (or perhaps autotune). The overall effect to me was that he had taken a beautiful collection of music and scribbled over it with electronic graffiti. The experience of listening was also rather exhausting. I play a lot of music when I am in the car - and I was finding that I was getting to the end of the Sufjan journeys feeling tired and emotional. But this is Sufjan Stevens, so I persevered.
And then something happened, after about half a dozen listens the songs started to make more sense. The electronic noises became less jarring and the sense of a cohesive vision started to overtake the fear that he might have let self indulgence take over. The slightly ragged rendition of some parts began to feel less shoddy and more like a deliberate way of expressing the feeling behind the music.
So my overall conclusion? I would have preferred a more straightforwardly beautiful album in the style of Illinoise. All the ingredients are here, and the man has a unique way with melody. My initial disappointment has given way to a profound respect for what he has attempted here. This is a very good album. I think some fans will genuinely love it, in the same way that some fans liked `enjoy your rabbit'. Some will, like me initially will think that in places it's a bit of a mess. My advice would be not to judge it too harshly on first hearing. There is real genius at work here. I think that there are major flaws, but overall this is an album that repays careful listening and time to settle into your imaginings. Not sure how often I will play it - it remains an exhausting experience - but respect to the man, he has made a brave record here.