Subtlety has never interested Sufjan Stevens. Illinois is no exception—take a peek at that cover art. The one that looks like it’s made with clip art. And that gushing album title? Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise. Illinoise? Really? Is he serious? Oh he’s serious all right, and he’s about to explain to you why Illinois is the single greatest state to ever exist in any nation in world history. The second album in Stevens’ slightly ambitious “50 States Project” (which was bunk from the start) sees the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit and the lo-fi Christian folk of Seven Swans dissipate. What remains is a remarkably beautiful hot mess—one of the most amicable, symphonic, and gorgeous indie records of the decade.
Building on musical themes from his previous album, Michigan, Sufjan goes all-in, employing a ubiquitous orchestra and backing choir, which gives Illinois a musical scope and diversity as massive as the state itself. What’s so fascinating about Sufjan’s music is it’s sense of form, or lack thereof. Some sounds are conventional; in other instances, particularly in his use of time signatures, compositions can be frustratingly complex. Another key separating factor is the minute attention to detail in the lyrics. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a haunting ballad of Illinois’ most famous serial killer, sprinkles small details of Gacy’s life and crimes that in turn connect to the bigger picture. Sufjan chimes “When the swingset hit his head,” an actual instance in Gacy’s childhood that caused a blood clot in his brain. This personal fact segues into the macabre, with Stevens’ exclaiming “He dressed up like a clown for them/With his face paint white and red,” in reference to Gacy’s dubbing as the “Killer Clown,” and “He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth,” calling to Gacy’s use of chloroform to subdue, molest, and kill his victims. It’s a shocking, intimate piece of songwriting, especially concerning the songs final lines, where Stevens turns the focus inward: “And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floor boards/For the secrets I have hid.” This full-circle implication that everyone is capable of horrific strings of violence—that the only thing separating us from Gacy is our individual actions—is basically Songwriting 101 for any aspiring musician.
But Illinois is not all gloom and doom; in fact, Stevens takes a holistic approach to these songs, touching on all walks of life and locale within the state. Numerous cities get direct references (Jacksonville, Evansville, Peoria, Caledonia, Kankakee, Decatur) as well as famous historical figures in Illinois history (Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Casimir Pulaski). Stevens even goes so far as to include a song about Superman, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” because the fictional city of Metropolis is largely based on the city of Chicago. There’s a sweet ode to his stepmother, “Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” which describes a trip Sufjan and his brother took with their stepmother to Decatur. It begins with the childlike innocence of “Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her.” The feelings Sufjan is able to invoke in these songs feel at once both small and universal, and all are delivered without a hint of irony or pretentiousness.
Musically, Illinois is largely a communal effort. Few songs break this pattern. “Chicago” is a fabulous example, generously employing strings, drums, keyboard, horns, and a backing choir. Sufjan uses Chicago as an allegory for his (or someone’s) constant reinvention: he is a man who loves, falls, and loves again: “I fell in love again/All things go, all things go/Drove to Chicago/All things know, all things know.” In those lyric lie infinite optimism, assisted by a perfect build and release. There’s a newness to the horns every time they appear, acting almost as a secondary chorus that propels the song, and the feeling, forward. “Chicago” is a beautiful tribute to mistakes, both large and small, and a reminder that we can always drop it and walk away, that we are capable of changing for the better. A different sort of optimism is expressed in “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” expounding on Sufjan’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity: “Only a real man can be a lover/If he had hands to lend us all over/We celebrate our sense of each other/We have a lot to give one another.” The lyrics ring with sentimentality, but Sufjan’s distinct earnestness and skill as a songwriter elevate the song. Once again, Sufjan deploys horns, thrusting drums and loud, messy electric guitars. The song fades away in contemplation before being revitalized by the chorus. There is significance in that musical choice; nothing ever dies in Illinois, the feeling simply subsides for the moment, eagerly awaiting it’s inevitable return.
The excellent “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us” is both truth and embellishment. Sufjan explains “North of Sylvana we swim in the Palisades,” which is fiction, as the true-life story Sufjan tells took place in his home state of Michigan, not Illinois. But the heart of the song follows in the next stanza: “Oh how I meant to tease him/Oh how I meant no harm/Touching his back with my hand I kiss him/I see the wasp on the length of my arm.” The horns follow, lopping lower and lower as confusion and sadness settles in. There’s an innocence to Sufjan’s confession, as though he confused the intensity of boyhood friendship for unrequited love—but not once does he shy away from these feelings. In fact, he never shies away from any feeling. The song blasts it’s way back, the chorus beckoning “Oh great sights upon this state! Hallelu-,” with Sufjan underneath, “We were in love. We were in love./Palisades! Palisades!/I can wait. I can wait. ” The candidness with which Stevens’ expresses passionate feelings is what makes Illinois such a deeply affecting album; people and places come and go, but the feeling always remains, and feelings are no good if we refuse to acknowledge them.
Illinois is a special concept album. It’s unlike any other indie rock record I’ve ever listened to. The stories are by turns small and intimate, large and urgent, historical and contemplative. There is life, death, love, and passion within those lines, and the sense that, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, whatever life we’ve lived up to this point, there is some one and some place in this world that will accept us as we are.
Favorite tracks: “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” “Chicago,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “The Man of Metropolis…,” “The Predatory Wasp…”