Sufjan Stevens is actually somebody who has passed me by up to now. His name has long been associated with credibility and has been dropped by many who like the 'right' sort of music. This is his seventh album and his first for five years. Gone are the singalong tunes and kitchen sink production to be replaced by a raw, sparse, largely acoustic sound throughout. Vaguely reminiscent of a slightly more produced early Elliott Smith, opening track Death With Dignity is a charming slice of acoustic guitar picking, topped off with a lovely keyboard solo midsong. Should Have Known Better is a highlight, a hard-bitten yet sweetly sung tale of harsh childhood memories.
There are great songs all over this album, from the insistent, down-strumming of Drawn To The Blood to the stunning, ghostly Fourth of July, Stevens lamenting "we're all gonna die" on the latter over swirling, wintry keyboard washes. The title track has one of the prettier melodies here, but in fact, one could easily pick out all eleven tracks here.
What keeps this from being a bit cloying and samey are the touches of weirdness here and there, the unexpected bursts of creeping keyboards that are barely noticeable at first till they pull you under... in a good way. Stevens' breathy vocals suit the songs well, inhabiting them without overwhelming them. It's an old-fashioned album that hangs together well and is bound to feature in end of year lists.