Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)

by Stephanie Duncan

If you're going to use only one word to describe Sufjan Steven's newest masterpiece, lavish comes to mind. The second installment in his infamous '50 states' albums project is 'Illinois'. Heralding in a new era of indie pop which utilizes all manner of lush orchestrations; chirping woodwinds, elegantly arranged billowing horns as well as majestic imagery of America. But they all come down to the same-- the people aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and Stevens' is here to tell a story. To label him as 'folk' is nearly impossible. On perhaps the catchiest song "Come on, feel the Illinoise", he uses phrases that might seem at home in a tourist's guidebook. "Campy" is a word that could be bandied about a few times to describe bits and pieces of his project. But then you have songs like 'John Wayne Gacy Jr.'. Probably one of the most haunting and compelling tracks Stevens' has ever penned. He manages to take the story of a serial killer and make it seem beautiful and precious in his capable hands. No manner of history in the States' history should be ignored and he sketches out Gacy perfectly and accurately in a matter of minutes.

Even despite the imagry and the history behind the song (Gacy murdered young boys and buried them beneath the house), the piano floats along dreamily in the background with simple harmonies and acoustic guitar. Another beautiful thing on the album-- one of the many-- is his always apparent love of the banjo. Strummed and plucked in all of it's glory, it appears numerous times. Even amongst the vast orchestral compositions where it might seem out of place, he gives it a perfect little home. One of standout tracks to utilize it is 'Decatur', a strange loping song featuring the accordion as well and playful lyrics, namedropping some American history in between. But Stevens' isn't all lavish and camp, in 'Casimir Pulaski Day' he revisits the bare acoustics of 'Seven Swans'. But the emotion behind the tale of death and cancer and all that followed before and after make it seem swollen with sadness. And while his religion is a driving force behind a lot of his music, it seems to have taken a backseat on 'Illinois' save for songs such as 'Casimir'. 'Man of Metropolis' ventures close to straight up indie rock. Even featuring what sounds to be.. a guitar solo? Yes, he is a man of surprises with the voice of an angel. Then, of course, he delivers the melodramatic with 'They are night zombies..' creepy with violins, chimes and organs. Yes, what IF zombies rose from the dead and took over the State? Let's face it, Sufjan Stevens covers ALL the bases. He gives us the history, modern day love and death stories as well as hypothetical situations.

It is obviously an expansive album, clocking in around 74 minutes long. But it's about an entire state-- there's a lot to say! What it ends up coming down to is that Sufjan is a brilliant composer and arranger. Not merely a folk singer/songwriter, every album expands upon itself. Even the ever long and expanding song titles manage to play upon the bit of camp that comes along with the 1960s tourist exploring America feel. If he deems it so interesting to make beautiful music
over, then maybe it's enough for people to start loving America again.

Oct. 2005