Album Review: Illinois

2005’s Illinois was folk hero Sufjan Stevens’s second installment of a planned 50-part series of state-themed albums, following a revered 2003 meditation on his home state, Michigan. If we count 2009 album BQE as his New York/New Jersey installment, that means Stevens has only 46 more albums to release before completing the greatest musical project in American history.

A few years after Illinois was released, Stevens declared the planned series as nothing more than promotional gimmick (though it did create much speculation; Oregon and Arkansas were both teased as his next focus). His vision was a lofty dream; one that would be difficult to complete even for a massive collective of America’s best traveled folk musicians. Even if Stevens continued this project of truly American proportions, it’s difficult to fathom how he could sustain the brilliance presented in Illinois, by itself a landmark of American songwriting.

It’s challenging to absorb the breadth of Stevens’s accomplishment. Just by flipping through the inspired album art and voluminous lyric sheet, one can tell that this is one of the most well researched musical works in recent memory. The twenty-two tracks seem overwhelming, especially with perfectly-too-long names like “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze” (which takes much longer to read than it does to play through). It takes a few sittings just to absorb the album’s complexity, but it’s undoubtedly worth the multiple 75+ minute sittings (assuming one doesn’t have more important things to attend to).

This isn’t a history document on what Stevens perceives as the bastion of Midwestern culture. For the most part, the album presents an optimistic view of the state, but Stevens isn’t trying to sell Illinois like a travel agent. In fact, Stevens tries to educate the average listener (and non-Illinois resident) about interesting but nonessential tidbits of Illinois’s past. What amazes about this record is how Stevens presents a comprehensive look at the history of an entire state while avoiding coastal clichés like Senator Lincoln, Aunt Betsy’s cow, meatpacking in conjunction with railroads, high-level corruption, Sears-Roebucks, obesity, wifebeaters and painters jeans, dabulls dabears dabulls dabears…

The way Steven’s presents information feels more like a natural curiosity than well-learned name-dropping. On the brilliant pseudo-introduction “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”, he relays the “optimistic pleasures” of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (Cream of Wheat, Frank Lloyd Wright, The Ferris Wheel!) before cheerfully describing a haunting dream in which he was visited by the ghost of Carl Sandburg demanding him “…to improvise on the attitude, the regret on a thousand centuries of death,” (Stevens writes quite poetically; more on that later). “Decatur” tells tales of the Sangamon River and abolition grain trains passing “Civil War skeletons in their graves”, and Stevens does this so colorfully that he leaves the listener nostalgic for a period in which no living person can possibly hold nostalgia.

His researching talents also present a side beyond the optimistic. Stevens goes into excruciating detail on “John Wayne Gacy Jr,” a biography of the state’s most famous serial murderer, expanding on Gacy’s troubled childhood, his victims, his methods, and his psychology. It presents way more than anyone should want to know about him, but it’s also a necessary counterbalance to Stevens’s at times peppy exuberance about the Midway State.

There are a few moments where his breadth of knowledge goes nowhere. For instance, on the brilliantly named “THEY ARE NIGHT ZOMBIES!! THEY ARE NEIGHBORS!! THEY HAVE COME FROM THE DEAD!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!! AHHHHHH!” he mentions seemingly every Illinois town he missed in the previous 15 tracks along with half a dozen names that even Illinois folk would have to rely on Wikipedia to learn. It doesn’t help that the chorus’s staccato delivery makes it impossible to make out the cacophony of information without a lyric sheet.

Mostly however, Stevens stays true and humbled by the state he researched, giving great respect in one line to Steven A. Douglass (“a great debater”) and Abraham Lincoln (“the GREAT e-MAN-CI-pator”), The Standard Edition, the Navy Yard, campsites in the Palisades, Chickenmobile, and dozens of other things I don’t understand by virtue of my residence in what I once thought was superior California.

Stevens may be a tremendous student, but he is an even better musician. He begins the album with “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois,” a song that feels like the prologue to a children’s book, giving the listener a snippet of what Stevens aims to present on the duration of the record. The wind instrumentation flutters along with a rising children’s (teenage?) chorus as Stevens muses on a mysterious event, showing his curiosity to which he relates over and over for inspiration. He bookends the meat of the album with two songs that are essentially the same in orchestration. “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” both have impressively adaptable 5/4 time signatures, one hand piano intros leading into joyous walls of noise, separated sections describing disparate aspects of the state, and a dozen different instruments each, half of which probably played by Stevens himself (a classical trained oboist, of all things).

The album’s highlight is its simplest and most tender song, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” named after a revered Polish general of the American Army during the Revolutionary War. The song, which has nothing to do with Pulaski and barely to do with his namesake holiday, features Stevens nearly at a calm whisper revealing a sort of religious apathy as he witnesses a diseased lover slip away. His refrain, “Oh the glory that the Lord has made,” coupled simply with one guitar, is one of the most masterful melodies I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation picks up only once, but instead of every instrument in his arsenal blowing steam as they do on the rest of the album, a solitary trumpet appears, cutting through Stevens’s emotional depth. Throughout the song, Stevens harmonizes the guitar with a dueling banjo, something he does multiple times throughout the album.

Believe it or not, Stevens sounds best when plucking a banjo. He gives the listener a taste of his crafty methods on “Jacksonville,” only to craft a near-perfect banjo ditty with “Decatur.” He is able to switch moods, dabbling with minor keys in “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” and sheer misery in “Night Zombies” and “Seer’s Tower,” but he is better at recollecting childhood innocence and blissful youth, exemplified by his tender but lovely falsetto on “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”

This brings us to his singing. It’s technically sound, but he sings a lot like Feist, Regina Spektor, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy: timid, shy, and with a lot of emotion holding back. His lack of strength works in his favor a couple of times, most notably on “Casimir Pulaski Day,” but otherwise there are dozens of moments where a potentially perfect sonic moment is hampered by Stevens’s inability to relay exactly how he feels through his voice. He’s not an inspiring singer. This may seem like nitpicking, especially when directed at someone so talented, but honestly it’s the quality that makes me hesitate to place this in the pantheon of great American albums. Stevens himself, however, should be included with the Bob Dylans, Neil Youngs, Paul Simons, and Kurt Cobains of songwriting.

Stevens’s lyrics and poetic style separate him from other great American songwriters. There are occasions where Stevens falls into traditional songwriting methods, like on indie masterpiece and public radio favorite “Chicago” and the tongue-in-cheek “Jacksonville,” but for the most part Stevens abandons institutional form for a Walt Whitman approach to his music. He opens the album by singing “When the revenant came down/we couldn’t imagine what it was/In the spirit of three stars/The alien thing that took its form/Then to Lebanon, oh God!” His lines are never easily sung (thanks to his affinity for strange meter), but one might want to learn after hearing a verse like “even with the heart of terror/and the superstitious wearer/I am writing all alone/I am writing all alone.” It’s powerful stuff, even without musical accompaniment.

Stevens saves his best lyrics for “Predatory Wasp,” ironically the song with the least momentous topic (making new friends at a summer camp). He begins his narrative by singing “thinking outrageously, I write in cursive/I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor,” and by the time the instrumentation picks up, it’s hard not to choke up in his carefree feelings. He drops bits of joyous reminiscence throughout, my favorite being “into the car, from the backseat/oh admiration in falling asleep.” I’m sure ten different listeners would have a unique favorite line, and its due to Stevens’s ability to sustain whatever emotions he presents, even if he can’t through his voice.

I’ve already written too much about this album, and it’s not nearly enough to fully capture Stevens’s hard work and spirit that went into this wonderful record. He manages to insert an all-encompassing double-entendre on “Predatory Wasp” by declaring, “I can’t explain the state that I’m in.” It exemplifies Stevens’s awareness, not only to his research, but to his abilities as an artist, as he is able to capture both a childlike confusion and a sickly-sweet bullshit declaration in one line. If he wasn’t so Paul Simon with his voice, he might have created a timeless classic, but it still is a masterpiece for what it is. In fact, if I were in the Illinois State Legislature, I wouldn’t hesitate in declaring it the state’s official album, the first of its kind, I presume. Of course, I’m biased, but maybe in a generation we’ll have senators humming “Decatur” to themselves while selling their seats to budding politicians (kidding, sort of).

 

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