the actual track listing).
The album begins with the sound of a door opening, and like Dorothy opening the door to the Technicolor world of “Oz,”
you are in for a beautiful, surreal, uncertain, and tuneful journey. On “Illinois,”
Sufjan Stevens’s second album in his insanely ambitious One Album for Each of the Fifty States
Project, the author takes a giant leap forward. A sonic, charismatic, movie-for-the-ears
leap forward. Almost everything about this album is so enthralling; managing
to be both challenging and welcoming. Like a historical cinematic epic, the album is too long when
you look at the actual minutes and seconds, but just sit back, grab and soda and some snacks, and let yourself take
Whether they are backed with head bopping banjo
pop, orchestrated travel sounds, majestic choir voices with structured harmonies, or electric campfire anthems, Stevens dutifully
namedrops all things Illinois in the lyrics, and eardrops enough heartwarming melodies to better most artists’ entire
career. Each tune seems to build into the next…almost as if you are driving
across the state, compiling all that it has to offer. Individually, the tracks
are fascinating, but listening to them separately is missing the entire essence of the album.
An essence that is as unique as it is captivating.
“Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland,
Illinois” gets things off to an otherworldly start, with calming piano, swirling birdlike orchestration, and two
minutes of sheer mood. Stevens’s voice is just so inviting, made even more
so by the gorgeous harmonies. “The Black Hawk War” is another
two-minute mood piece, this time without words… it cleverly intermingles a strange chorus, with high-pitched horns,
and a marching beat of triumph and sadness, exactly demonstrating a war. These
two numbers act as an introduction, wearily welcoming you into Stevens’s unique case study.
The first major piece of work and first real glimpse
into Stevens’s realm is the amazingly titled, “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” This track recalls the sound of the best parts of “Greetings From Michigan”
as it is a seven-minute epic, with so many voices, so many directions, so many instruments, and so many emotions that all
just blend together into one all encompassing, mesmerizing classic. You can’t
listen to it with any hope of following along or trying to figure out its patterns or melodies…just sit back and let
it transport you to Stevens’s version of Illinois. And at your first stop
on his vision, your heart gets ripped out with “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
This delicate, moving, absolutely stunning piano and guitar ballad is Stevens at his most touching. The lyrics act as a biography to Gacy, but cleverly compare all of us to the killer in the final verse. After hearing it for the first time, I was shell-shocked…and writing this, after
hearing it dozens of times, I’m still just bowled over by such a deplorable, but accurate sentiment, in which the listener
actually feels understanding for a serial killer. And that “Oh my Goddddddddd”
hook is kneeweakingly gorgeous.
The next stop on Stevens’s tour takes you
to “Jacksonville.” This tune displays an other side to Illinois
with its five-minute backwoods, banjo groove. The fragile orchestration is, as
always, perfect, as are the strange background vocals and haunting aura. Out
of nowhere, energetic horns play happy sounding harmonies that are completely out of place, but still work, adding to the
unusual mood. The banjo continues on “Decatur,” but here
it is joined by an organ, and a more bluegrass approach, showing you more cluttered musical roots of Illinois. Your head can’t sit still on this bouncy pop, mid tempo, good time number, with ridiculous lyrics. The applause at the end is the perfect coda and lead directly into the centerpiece
of the album, the aptly urban, “Chicago.” Pete Townshendish…clever
and catchy instrumentation, rolling choruses, heartfelt and beautiful vocals, unbelievable structure and flow… put this
kid on your new favorite artist list and tell a friend.
“Casimir Pulaski Day,” follows
and features a singsong, but harrowingly effective melody and story lyrics about first girlfriends and innocence that eventually
turns drastic and all wrong. Eerily, the poppy melody continues on throughout
the lyrical shift in mood. After a short, somewhat creepy Spanish atmospheric
piece, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” comes riffing in.
Hard rock… punk relative to its company…this song starts off thrashing, but slowly shifts to the normal
Stevens hymn: beautiful and tuneful. But then halfway through, the ROCK returns
and kicks the tune onto another level…another other side…a pounding electrical side with a choir. The Wayne’s World “dit-a-loo…dit-a-loo…dit-a-loo…” ending makes way
for the wind-chimey, scary, Munchkin chant, with battle drums, and Disney production of “Prairie Fire That Wanders
About.” This is two-minutes of absurdity that I can’t get enough
Forty-six minutes into the album (barely halfway
through), “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us” musically does sound like a soundtrack
to a wasp chasing you, which Stevens uses as a strange metaphor for falling in love with your same-sex best friend. The lyrics are fascinating; leaving large gaps in the story but telling it completely, while the music
seamlessly matches the affair, producing yet another winner. As if responding
to the forbidden tale of loss, “They Are Night Zombies!!…” comes creeping in, with a tight, R&B
strut, and female Zombie chanting. Are you kidding me? Who the hell is this guy and what the fuck is this song? It
absolutely rules in all its eeriness and is so utterly different from the rest of the record.
I’m not sure what it has to do with Illinois, but then again, this is just a record of observation, not understanding.
“The Seer’s Tower” is
a doom laden piano track with sinister, angelic chanting. What is going on? Things are getting religiously disturbing pretty quick with Zombies and this song
about Emanuel and gravesites. I’m starting to want to get the hell out
of this side of Illinois, and go back to the cartoon music before I freak. Luckily,
“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” brings back the earlier, lush, happy sound. It is nothing short of great, but the track is seven minutes long and is already an hour into the album. Plus, “Part II” is a little frightening like the previous numbers,
but does create an enormous build up to the ending line, “It can only start with you.” This would be a fitting final, but it is unfortunately ruined by an unnecessary, closing, five-minute,
warped piano piece that only helps to take away from close to perfection
the record ends on an anticlimactic note, Sufjan Stevens has surely created an awe-inspiring masterpiece with this cyclic
album. Rumor has it that Oregon and Maine are up next in his conceptual project,
but it really doesn't matter... Based on the first two albums, I will be buying all Sufjan Stevens’s subsequent records
regardless if he continues with this inspiration or not. “Come
on Feel the Illinoise” earned him that small piece of homage with its night out at the
movies atmosphere and Oscar worthy performance.