Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)

4.5 ★/9.0 - 9.9

Well, 2 states down and 48 more to go. Regardless of whether or not Sufjan actually pursues this extremely daunting "states project" though, at the very least we'll have Illinois. As a matter of fact, Illinois has made his task tougher, because he's gonna have a hell of a time topping what is not only his best album to date, but the best album of the year.

Musically, Sufjan’s symphonic folk and "everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink" instrumentation makes a return in epic fashion. However, "Come On! Feel The Illinois!" makes the difference between Illinois and Michigan apparent. Whereas Sufjan revealed Michigan to be the depressing asshole of America, with failing businesses and unemployment, Illinois is a center for celebration! The joyous piano line and staccato horn section gives way to Sufjan’s precious vocals to take the forefront as he and his choir section reveal to us the wonders of Illinois: The Ferris Wheel, Cream of Wheat, The World’s Columbian Exposition and more. Most of the album is dedicated to this and Sufjan isn’t a pussyfooter; he knows his shit. "Decatur" takes one of Sufjan’s irresistible banjo-toting campfire melodies and, along with splendid backing harmonies from Matthew Morgan, touches everything from Abe Lincoln to the manufacturing company, Caterpillar Inc. "John Wayne Gacy, Jr" is a hauntingly gripping narrative recounting the tragedy of the clown serial killer who raped and killed 33 young boys and buried them under his house, while "The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" spends the most rock-oriented track recounting the legacy of the man of steel himself. By halfway through the album, a musical picture is already painted, giving a very distinct identity to Illinois, and there's still room left over for more personal-sounding song of the year candidates, "Chicago" and "Casimir Pulaski Day". Yes, the album is huge and doesn’t come without a couple of missteps, but it’s a shame that many listeners will become drained midway and not get to some of the strongest tracks buried in the mix, such as the booming crescendos of "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us" or the strange time signatures and hand claps employed in "The Tallest Man The Broadest Shoulders".

Still, Illinois is easy to dislike. There's something about Sufjan's "precious pretty Christian boy" approach that's bothersome. With lyrics like, "I cried myself to sleep for the earth and materials" and christian themes, the inner punk in everyone will undoubtedly breach security level red. But if one keeps with it, even the most cold-hearted people could fall for these soulful epics. Through his stories and ceremonious demeanor, Sufjan gets you sucked into every dramatic crescendo, every shimmering note being held and every choir shout. He appeals to a basic human instinct - one of community and togetherness in the face of challenges. And I’m rarely one to go to sermons or join groups and sing along. But with Illinois, I’m taken. Agape, nudist colonies, turtle fetishist cults, whatever the fuck it is, just give me Illinois and sign me up.

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