Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (Review)

This album has been like a breath of fresh air for me, even bringing me close to tears during some of the more haunting passages.
Illinois, Sufjan Stevens

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. Yes, I realize that the title of Sufjan Stevens’ latest is actually Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise. And yes, I realize that the full song titles include such gems as “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!” and “Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run.” However, for both for the sake of your time and my typing fingers, I’m simply going to refer to this album as Illinois and to the song titles in as concise a manner as possible.

Now, I’m sure that some of you are probably thinking “See! The fact that you even had to begin your review of Sufjan Stevens’ latest in such a precocious manner proves just how precocious this disc is!” And the thing is, you’re absolutely right.

I suppose you have to pretty precocious to begin recording albums for every one of the 50 States in the Union — only to actually have the gall to follow up on such a promise with lyrics full of historical, cultural, and geographical references that take the form of childhood memories, devotionals, character sketches, tone poems, etc. And the final straw would have to be wrapping it up in a music style that touches on everything from Steve Reich to Vince Guaraldi, from Stereolab to Eric Matthews.

One has already received a solid dose of Stevens’ musical “isms” by the third track, “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!.” Beginning with a rousing fanfare of shuffling drums, piping horns and flutes, sparkling vibes, and fluid piano lines — the core elements of Illinois’ breezy, rolling arrangements — Stevens lays down line after line of oft-humorous, reference-filled lyrics while backed by a trilling female chorus line.

The song’s first part (“The World’s Columbian Exposition”) goes through a laundry list of innovations and accomplishments — “Chicago, in fashion, the soft drinks, expansion, oh Columbia!/From Paris, incentive, like Cream Of Wheat invented, the Ferris Wheel!” — pausing to ponder the price of such progress, asking/pleading “Oh God of Progress, have you degraded or forgot us?.”

By the time you’re halfway through unravelling Stevens’ textbook-like lyrics, the song gracefully moves to the second part, “Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream.” Again, the lyrics are as wordy and effusive as you would expect, but even with the glorious, rich arrangements, layers of melodies, and Lord knows how many instruments all flitting and dancing about, the song settles down to a hushed level.

Stevens lyrics,’ for all of their cleverness, take on a more introspective tone as they recount a dreamlike encounter with the famous poet’s ghost. At one point, the trilling female chorus asks, point blank, “Are you writing from the heart?” as Stevens confesses “I was asked to improvise/On the attitude/The regret of a thousand centuries of death.” It’s a worthwhile question.

Is this entire album, and by extension, this whole “50 States” project really, truly more than just an ambitious project, a clever little marketing ploy? Is it really more than just a mere geographical challenge?

As I listen to this album, and look back on the albums Stevens has released to this point, I can only conclude that the answer is a simple “Yes.” Sure, the album is full of lyrics that might just be too clever for their own good, and Stevens’ arrangements could easily be construed as an attempt to show off his prodigious musical skills. (According to the liner notes, he plays 23 instruments on the album and wrote all of the arrangements solo.)

However, there is an undeniable and graceful humanity and emotion that flows through the album. At times, it’s so hushed and subtle that it gets overshadowed by the songs’ showier aspects. But it’s still there, giving even the most flowery and superfluous of parts a certain urgency.

Then there’s Illinois’ spiritual dimension. While Illinois might not have the obvious imagery found in songs like “Vito’s Ordination Theme” or “The Transfiguration,” there’s still a hushed spirituality at work, almost like an undercurrent. Sometimes it’s concealed in such ambiguous references as “You came to take us/To recreate us” and “Oh Great Ghost, protect and save us.” But there are moments when it bubbles up to the surface, resulting in some of the disc’s most affecting moments.

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a sparse, chilling rumination on the serial killer’s life, complete with references to his clown costume, the childhood trauma that may have sparked his murderous behavior, and his unassuming demeanor. However, the song is ultimately a confession, with Stevens admitting “And in my best behavior I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

“Casimir Pulaski Day” — the title refers to an Illinois holiday celebrating Revolutionary War hero Kazimierz Pulaski — is one of the album’s most powerful songs. Stripped of the embellishments that color so much of the album, the song is an acoustic ballad a la Seven Swans. As with Michigan’s “Romulus,” “Casimir Pulaski Day” is from the perspective of a young protagonist dealing with loss and betrayal. This time, however, it’s the loss of a loved one and the apparent betrayal of God Himself (“Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens”).

It’s a beautiful song, and touches on one of the most basic issues of Christianity — how do you reconcile the gorgeous promises of a faith with your own disappointments and discouragements? — with the simplest of lyrics. “All the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications when I see His face,” Stevens sings. “All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/And He takes…”

I personally love the fact that the song does not end on the sort of cheerful, “Trust in God and everything will be GREAT” note that sadly defines so much of Christian art. Rather, the song ends on a more pensive, ambiguous note with a tenuous measure of hope conveyed by the slowly building layers of trumpet and voices that fill the song’s final seconds. Which is to say, the song is much more inline with my personal experiences attempting to live out a life of faith and belief.

So ultimately, how does Illinois stack up to Michigan? Well, in many ways, the albums are incredibly similar, cut from the very same cloth. Some have complained that Stevens hasn’t really evolved musically, but is still throwing out the same musical tricks. However true that might be, Stevens definitely branches out and expands his palette.

“Chicago” is one of the most triumphant songs he’s written to date, full of surging vocal and brass arrangements, swaying strings, and Stevens’ spiralling banjo pickings (which seem less pronounced overall on this album). The hazy atmospherics on “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” evoke Black Moth Super Rainbow’s nostalgic textures. And “They Are Night Zombies!!” finds him dabbling in disco(?!?), complete with a funky bassline and some BeeGee-inspired strings.

Overall, the melodies sound more confident, more sure of themselves. (Just listen closely for the subtle but oh-so-wondrous melodic shifts on “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” if you want proof.) This album does have a bit more filler with tracks like “One Last Whoo-hoo! For The Pullman” and “Let’s Hear The String Part Again,” but I, for one, am glad that the man’s Steve Reich fetish is still in full effect.

Lyrically, the album might not pack quite as much punch, for me at least. But that’s because Michigan holds a great deal of personal significance for me. And as others have pointed out, Illinois’ lyrics here aren’t quite as focused on its namesake state as Michigan was on its homeland. But really, those minor quibbles at best.

The bottom line is this: Illinois is just as accomplished, as fully-realized, as involving, and as disarming as its predecessor. The fact that it’s cut from the same basic musical cloth, and is chock full of the same kind of musical passages and arrangements is not a liability. Nor is its equally flowery prose.

As precocious as those things might seem at times, they merely add to the overall experience of the album. Some might find it cloying and saccharine, and I suppose I can’t blame them. But this album has been like a breath of fresh air for me, even bringing me close to tears during some of the more haunting passages (or from the sheer joy of listening to how Stevens’ arrangements unfold). Suffice to say that, come December, it will be very hard to supplant Illinois from the top spots in my “Year’s End” list.

Enjoy reading Opus? Want to support my writing? Become a subscriber for just $5/month or $50/year.
Subscribe Today
Return to the Opus homepage