#3) Sufjan Stevens: Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, 2005
I have to at least wonder how my experience of Come on! Feel the Illinoise! would change if I had ever stepped foot into the state of Illinois. As Sufjan’s second installment of albums inspired by/dedicated to each of America’s 50 states (which is a project he’ll doubtfully complete), he references many specific locations, personalities, and events particularly relevant to Illinois, such as Chicago, Decator, Jacksonville, serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., Superman (he’s from Metropolis, duh!), and those are just examples taken from the song titles. Not to mention, those are just ones that I actually recognize.
But I don’t find the album’s American prairie setting excludes me completely as a west coast Canadian, because ultimately the album’s true concept is a collection of short stories of human life meshed with Stevens’ touching personal reflections. Just as a good movie can do, specific setting is used to create a fairly universal story. And story is one of the many things Illinoise does incredibly well; it is folk music at its absolute highest caliber.
Although it is somewhat ambiguous from the first two tracks, Illinoise quickly shows itself to be the happiest sound on my list, and arguably the entire decade! Even tackling heavy subjects of war and murder, there is a lightness in the exquisitely eclectic instrumentation, and a sense of humor that comes with ridiculously long song titles. (For the purpose of time and space, I’ll use abbreviated names unless absolutely necessary).
And so we are introduced to Illinois/Illinoise with reflective piano not constrained by any time signature used in pop music prior (65/16. And no, I don’t want to admit how long I spent on that), preparing us for a collection of songs that refuse to fit into any box. Flutes trill above the texture freely, until they go crazy in The Black Hawk War, a march complete with snare shots doubled by trumpets.
Both tracks to me feel like a slow approach to the listener, before full out inviting us to indeed “Feel the Illinoise” with the title track, which is broken into two parts: The World’s Columbian Exposition, and Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream equally portray some of the most joyful energy, even as both parts question the meaning of progress in light of the world fair and transitioning to a more personal inquisition inspired by the poet Carl Sandburg: “Are you writing from the heart?”
While this album creates an atmosphere easy to play in any background, it can additionally be appreciated musically and lyrically for hours. For months I didn’t pay attention to what John Wayne Gacy Jr. was about, and when a friend pointed out that he was a famous serial killer I was eager to listen to the lyrics more closely. Sufjan has a way of empathizing with both victim and victimizer, turning the final line into an introspection: “and in my best behavior, I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboard for the secrets I have hid”.
Jacksonville through Decatur (the first song I know of positively dedicated to step-mothers!) have a great southern banjo flavor that is only briefly interrupted by A Short Reprise of strings (which tie the entire album together, without sounding too formal) that flow straight into the best-known and loved track on the album, Chicago. Oh how I need to go to Chicago. In the past, I’ve mostly wanted to go so I could have my picture taken with the bronze Michael Jordan outside of the United Center. I still want to do that, but now I just want to duplicate an experience of a van road tripping and sleeping in parking lots like described in this song.
More sensitive story telling with Casmir Pulaski Day, showing what has been consistently true of Illinoise; Sufjan’s beautiful sense of both melody and harmony. Having a brief instrumental break before The Man of Metropolis jars us back into interest with a few beats of an electric guitar that doesn’t find its way back into the track for a full two minutes. The variety in instrumentation is noted yet again, as The Prairie Fires return to a Sufjan-favoured combination of oboes and muted trumpets that finds itself displayed in all of its glory throughout the Predatory Wasp as well. And for the sake of trivia and awe, Sufjan himself plays nearly every instrument in the recording of this album.
As Sufjan continues to sing his simple and deeply honest lyrics, it occurs to me that there is something about his voice that doesn’t quite fit in with the other artists on my top 12. Thus far it has seemed that one of the most consistent themes of Listmas has been men making use of their falsetto range. Think about it: Falsetto is practically a trademark for Justin Timberlake, Thom Yorke, Chris Martin, and Jonsi Birgusson. Yet Sufjan’s voice is under-produced, softly calling us to pay attention to his insights. Not that he never hits a high note, but there really is something quite noteworthy how unremarkable his voice really is. Yet we love him for it, and the way it seems to welcome us all to sing along with him.
This album also plays rather like a movie. It’s certainly long enough to be a feature film, and as we near the end, tracks like Night Zombies and The Seer’s Tower turn dark, seemingly more at home on the earlier album Seven Swans, which is a musical interpretation of the Biblical Revelation. The ghostly part of the album doesn’t last long however, and we return to another 2 part-ed song full of energy and joy as though we really haven’t departed to far from the title track. Even the transitions between the two parts finds itself made up primarily of falling trumpet lines, while Illinoise transitioned by rising ones.
In noticing similarities between Illinoise and The Tallest Man, I begin to wonder if the whole record is set up in a chiastic structure, since they match also as the third and third from last song on the album. This would make The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts the most important track through which to hear the rest of the songs. Interesting, but I’ll have to leave that analysis for another day, and instead try to remember whether Sufjan Stevens was in my Orchestration class as we also had to write an exercise of riffs using a single note. Either way, he cheats a bit.
And so beautifully, Out of Egypt concludes the experience in a wonderfully Steve Reich influenced instrumental repetition that fluctuates slowly and covertly. It allows me to put the whole experience down for a while and reflect before I decide to pick this album up again. Sounds take their turns emerging and re-submerging into the texture as all that makes up Illinoise seems to be waving wide-eyed goodbyes.
In a decade of emo and self-pity, Sufjan asks his questions of meaning not with naivety, but with refreshing hopefulness. Easily one of my favorite things created this decade, and absolutely my favorite new creative genius from these past 10 years.