Album Review of Sufjan Stevens' 2005 release, "Illinois"
Undoubtedly the most ambitious musical project undertaken since Harry Smith endeavored to record the history of American folk music fifty years ago, folksinger-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ grand plan to lay down an album for each of the 50 states reaches full flower with his second in the series, the lush, vibrant, and uncategorizable “Come on Feel the Illinoise.”
His fifth album since going solo in 1999, “Illinois” follows up last year’s quiet “Seven Swans,” a departure from the states series that began in 2000 with “Michigan,” about Stevens’ home state. Like that album, the 21 tracks of “Illinois” evoke their eponymous state with literate lyrics, but ratchet up the meandering soundscapes. Stevens has again practiced his lyrical travel writer’s craft on a worthy locale, but with this release drifts further from his folk rock roots. The album credits include a string quartet, the Illinoisemaker Choire, various friends singing back-up and blasting horns, and Stevens playing over 15 instruments, including an oboe, a glockenspiel, and “Laura’s rickety accordion,” and it shows.
The tracks, some with titles as long and twisted as a Dylan song, alternate between long and winding tales of historical people and places and short, lush instrumental numbers that break up what might become monotonous in lesser hands. The tale of serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is detailed and disturbing (“He took off all their clothes for them/He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands/quiet kiss on the mouth.”), while “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd,” honors the first lady who went insane after her husband, Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead next to her at the theatre. “THE BLACK WAR…” is a barker’s call to the fantastical festivities, with a slow building of voices and strings and wind instruments that climaxes in triumphant horns and drums; “Welcome to Illinois,” the song practically screams, “the greatest show on Earth.” Stevens steps on the gas with the twirling, swirling “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” which lifts from piano scales to a jazz hands-eliciting bounce of horns and percussion in taking us back to Chicago’s dazzling White City, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893: “Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?”
One shudders to think, but surely even Mr. Wright would blanch at the nightwalkers in “They are Night Zombies!!” The long intro has gotten short shrift in alternative music of late, yet in that track, as well as others, Stevens uses a simple layering technique to brilliant effect. Start with slow, long piano keys, add bass guitar riff, cymbals, and drum beats, top it off with excited strings and a women chanting in fright, and you’ve got yourself a perfect mazelike sound. Stop! For just a second. Now drop some breathy, nervous lyrics and start ratcheting it up again. Repeat. Rinse. Not bad. Now change instruments, lyrics, and performers. Do it again. In “Chicago,” Stevens reaches orgiastic heights employing a similar scheme, with sleigh bells, shakers, and a clarion trumpet call that perfectly compliments the harmonies of the choir.
Some may call Stevens’ lyrics twee or his singing voice precious. A reasonable complaint, but with grandiloquent musical statements like these, the closeness of his voice and the sentimentality of his writing personalize the wild goings-on more than they drift into syrupy emo.
“Illinois” is an unqualified triumph, with echoes of Beck, Iron & Wine, the Shins, and the psychedelic pop of Athens, Georgia’s Of Montreal, not to mention many artists long gone. Stevens has created an album that is as broad, expansive, and unpredictable as the nation he is only beginning to document. Whether the 27-year-old will live to finish his musical road trip is impossible to know, but he should certainly make all efforts to do so. Like an improvised road trip in an amorphous roadster with an encyclopedic and musically gifted uncle, “Illinois” is a rich, informative, and stylish tour of the long gone and underappreciated.