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Sufjan Stevens - Illinois

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Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Illinois

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Jul. 10, 2005

For the second entry in his relentlessly charming and absurdly ambitious effort to chronicle the 50 states in song, Sufjan Stevens heads west from Michigan – like Marquette and Joliet before him – to explore the wonders of Illinois. Neither missionary nor fur trapper figure into Stevens’ telling of the Prairie State’s story, but they’re the kind of characters – wide-eyed voyageurs said to have timed their river songs to the strokes of their paddles – that would fit snuggly into the singer’s cosmology. Superman is there (or isn’t, if DC comics has their way). So is Abraham Lincoln, Shoeless Joe Jackson, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. – figures whose personas tend to outstrip even their weightiest words and actions. Each is carefully woven into bountiful instrumental arrangements of piano, banjo, glockenspiel, recorder, woodwinds, brass, and human voice – sometimes bouncy, sometimes melancholy, often both. Someday the Smithsonian will file this sprawling musical celebration into their collection between Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America and Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers – joyous, generous Americana filtered through a singular sensibility.

In terms of its arrangements and historical sweep, Illinois manages to outshine what Stevens achieved on Michigan. The time signatures, melodies, and thematic concerns closely mirror points on the preceding record, while adding harmonic flourishes and embellishments that seem appropriate to a state whose citizens reversed a river, rebuilt from rubble, and hoisted entire city blocks an inch at a time. For some listeners these amplifications will be enough. For others – particularly those with fierce loyalties to Michigan – they may prove distracting. Impressed by dazzlingly compact histories, bright pageantry, and a song title that name-checks Baby Dodds, I haven’t located vocals as tender as “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” or a banjo line as devastating as the one in “Romulus”. But there are close moments: The hauntingly empathetic “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” pricks with its trembling vocals and devil-in-the-details lyrics (“Oh the dead / Twenty-seven people, even more / They were boys, with their cars / Summer jobs, oh my God”), the electric rupture of “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” lands swinging punches of nostalgic joy (“Raise the flag, summer home / Parted hair, and part unknown), and the tragic snapshot “Casimir Pulaski Day” is anchored to a wistful banjo line and littered with the detritus of youth – 4-H trinkets, dead birds, close encounters with girl’s blouses.

Like all of the best songs on Illinois, these three succeed as close poetic studies in which time, place, and character are communicated in spirit – through images, experiences, and moments, each as bittersweet and untenable as the brittle notes that form their brick and mortar. Elsewhere – as in the dizzying “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” – Stevens resorts to cataloging (“From Paris, incentive / like Cream of Wheat invented, the Ferris Wheel!“). Even as the punchy horns, tinkling bells, and piano arpeggios pop with the pomp and circumstance of the Columbia Exposition, the song labors to lend Biblical gravity to a historical line listing.

Throughout Illinois, this style of mythmaking is perpetually at odds with Stevens' heartrending close studies. And the singer is aware of it. The second movement in “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” contains the record’s most telling lyrics, in which Carl Sandburg – that blue-eyed, towheaded bard of Middle America – appears at Stevens' window, urging him to “write from the heart”. In a way it’s perfect – Sandburg, also a noted folk singer and song collector, is in every way Stevens' spiritual cousin. They share the same sets of strengths and weaknesses. At his best (the empathetic, Whitman-esque verse and antipoetic content of his Chicago Poems, the fanciful charm of his Rootabaga Stories), Sandburg is tough but tender, populist but keenly alive to human difference. At his worst (the Lincoln biographies), he’s dazzled by outsized truths, restlessly sanding the edges of a myth that’s been handed down as history.

Illinois swings compellingly between these same poles of pageantry and quiet lyricism. Its greatest strength is that Stevens knows it, and has the talent to bridge them convincingly.

By Nathan Hogan

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