Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise is a new state of mind
Published: Friday, September 9, 2005
Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2011 18:07
I had some doubts, be sure of that. A whole album of songs based on the mildly mundane state of Illinois? While I appreciate the lyrics of most folk songwriters, the whole "songs for the common man" shtick runs dry very quickly. And 74 minutes of folk-tinged indie rock? Yikes. I can barely handle some thirty-odd minute Shins albums. But Sufjan Stevens makes it work. The lyrics in his latest album, Illinoise, are endearing and insightful, rather than kitschy and preachy. The songs speak more of the spirit of Illinois, hidden amongst sometimes gleeful, sometimes morose songs about the life and history of the state. Stevens speaks from his own experiences growing up just to the north in Michigan, and the music that accompanies his lyrics is simply wonderful.
Employing a small orchestra of friends and musicians (in addition to his own wide array of musical talents), Stevens crafts both resounding anthems to the state and quiet songs of introspection. By the time the album closes, you'll feel like packing up and moving to what seems to be the greatest freaking state of all time.
Sufjan Stevens is a bit of an enigma of a musical artist. His lyrics put him in the same league as most folk singers, his music and songwriting put him somewhere between Ben Folds Five and The Arcade Fire, and his not-all-too-serious approach to his craft (as evident by the exorbitantly long song titles and kooky liner notes) put him alongside indie rock greats The Flaming Lips. His previous four albums run the gamut from minimalist folk/gospel to instrumental electronica to an album-long ode to his home state of Michigan. It is on this album that he truly finds himself as a songwriter, combining all of his talents into a work that is sure to keep listeners interested for a long, long time.
The album opens up with a quiet piano-driven piece about a UFO landing near Highland, Illinois. Its odd meter creates a loose feel and, complemented by Sufjan's soft voice, serves as a lush opener for the rest of the album. The next track is an instrumental build-up inspired by the seizure of Native American land in the state of Illinois, leading wonderfully into the album's definitive track, "Come On, Feel The Illinoise!" This bouncy six-and-a-half-minute track features a full brass ensemble, a small choir, and lyrics about the World's Fair and Carl Sandburg, all propelled by an incredibly catchy piano line. It goes on just long enough, allowing Stevens to truly flesh out his whimsical riffs and even more whimsical lyrics.
Next comes a song relating a brief history of John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the serial killer infamous for killing young boys while dressed as a clown, then burying their bodies underneath his floor. While one would expect a morbid and horrific song considering the topic, Stevens instead crafts it into a poignant and reflective piece about his own affinity for burying his secrets. The following highlight is a folky, banjo-driven ditty about the town of Decatur and Stevens' trip there with his stepmother. The lyrics are, simply put, just plain awesome, including a line about both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln ("Stephan A. Douglas was a great debater/Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator).
Shortly after lies a pensive and moving song called "Carl Pulaski Day," which traces the story of a woman diagnosed with bone cancer and her family's struggle to deal with the disease while keeping their faith in God. It is one of the more obvious songs on the album regarding Stevens' own faith, but he mostly lets his Christian beliefs lay low for this album, acting more like a quiet Quaker than a blazing Southern Baptist.
What follows are more songs that cover the ground between orchestral pop and stripped-down folk. While the length can be a turn-off for even the most ardent music fans, Stevens has tucked away a true gem of a song on the latter half of the album--the seven-minute "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders" acts as a powerful closer, followed only by two shorter instrumental numbers. Its triumphant lyrics and dense instrumentation end the album on a soaring note, making you feel invigorated rather than drained by this lengthy opus.
I cannot recommend an album more highly than Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise. While it is only September and a lot of great music may still be on the way, I think I can rightly and honestly say that this will be within my top five albums of the year. Any fan of rock and roll, alternative, indie, or folk can appreciate this record, and I don't think I've ever felt more inspired by a piece of music. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going--you see, I've got a plane to Chicago to catch.