on July 14, 2005
Sufjan Stevens is a puzzling character; sometimes naive, sometimes sophisticated, somewhat rustic and yet essentially urban in outlook. But there a few things he never seems to exhibit: crassness, boredom, or jaded irony. Instead he appears defenseless and in full flower on "Illinois", an album of remarkable breadth, depth and ambition.
It is precisely his lack of sneering superiority that makes "Illinois" such a treat. These lengthy, wordy poem/songs, these complex instrumental arrangements and daunting pop structures could all be so much ego run amok, like a bad progressive rock album. But that doesn't happen. Instead, we are treated to a song cycle so fresh and honest I hardly know where to start.
From the sweet quietness of the opening number (which turns an actual UFO sighting in 2000 into a revelatory experience) to the nearly presumptuous overture that follows, one gets a glimpse of what will follow. Imagery follows tone follows place follows events both personal and public in a seamless fabric. By the time we are through the title cut on track 3, he has already taken us through a small American symphony of ideas. We have wondered about God and aliens, considered the great icons of the state of Illinois, met with the ghost of Carl Sandburg and wondered if we are being honest with our art in the first place; surely one of the most breathtaking 11 minutes I can recall on CD.
The mood is quietly shattered with "John Wayne Gacy Jr.", probably the most haunted song in recent memory. If this one doesn't make you choke a little, check your pulse. By portraying a serial killer as human after all, he draws our attention to the flaws in every heart. He understands that demons have no souls, but people - even mass murderers - do. Watch out.
Several reviews have commented on Sufjan Steven's Christianity. While is it true that there are references to his faith throughout, it is presented so tenderly and with such openness that it is frankly above criticism and simply a part of the undeniable human experience. Whatever truths and doubts he mentions by way of faith are shared by us all, from atheists to the most devout. So while I do not share his faith I do share the common condition and so understand what he means perfectly.
I could continue, but really I just want people to hear this album all the way through, carefully. Good headphones are revelatory for this one. To shuffle the songs or pick out a few is almost a crime - "Illinois" is a complete work of astonishing freshness, and I find it difficult to imagine how it will be topped in the next 6 months.
Is Sufjan Stevens insane?
"Illinois" is only the second stop on a planned collection of 50 state-themed albums. It's the type of project whose sheer scale and mad ambition boggle the mind, calling forth a number of rhetorical questions: Is he really going to spend the bulk of his career on such a huge project? Given the fact that "Michigan" came out two years ago, shouldn't he pick up the pace a bit? Will he really make a separate album for, say, North and South Dakota?
I hope so.
Illinois is a great album, almost certainly the best of the year so far. It opens with a delicate and beautiful piano track entitled "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois." From there, Stevens criss-crosses the state, heading to Jacksonville, Decatur and Chicago, creating a musical travelogue as thorough as any Rand McNally guidebook.
Importantly, Stevens doesn't spend all his time going from point A to point B; he also stops to get to know people, writing about everyone from John Wayne Gacy to Superman to Abraham Lincoln to Carl Sandburg. Some of the references amount to little more than name-dropping, but the beautiful Superman song and the haunting Gacy track show that, most of the time, Stevens is really trying to understand how a place could be embodied by such disparate characters.
Thematically, too, he covers a lot of ground. "Oh, God of progress, have you degraded or forgot us? Where have your walls gone? I think about it now," he asks in what is probably the only song that will ever be written about the Columbian Exposition of 1893. For good measure, he throws in a little religious imagery later in the album; though his observations here feel a little self-centered and angry, you have to give him credit for honesty and candor.
Musically, Stevens borrows from a range of styles, from Iron and Wine's hushed folkiness to Philip Glass's bright string and flute and vibraphone arrangements. Somehow he pulls it all together, though; the album's tone ranges from the playful optimism of "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" to the breathy atmospherics of "The Seer's Tower" but still feels like the creation of a single creative genius. "Are you writing from the heart? Are you writing from the heart?" the ghost of Carl Sandburg asks him on the third track; the next song, the chilling "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." answers with a resounding yes.
I'd never heard of Stevens before hearing the glowing reviews for this album; now that I've heard it, I'm looking forward to catching up with a musical trip down I-94 to "Michigan." Hopefully by the time I'm done exploring his back catalog, he'll have the next state done, and hopefully it'll be as good as "Illinois"; even though I wonder how he can possibly finish this cross-country odyssey, I'm looking forward to riding shotgun.
on November 26, 2005
I'll admit it, I'm a corporate tool. I bought this album for the sole reason that Amazon named it the top album of 2005. I've been aching to find something new and interesting (my Flogging Molly and Phillip Glass albums were getting worn out). Since I hadn't seen anyone named Sufjan on American Idol, and the album wasn't getting shoved down the throats of us consumers I thought that Amazon may be trying to make a statement for the betterment of music.
I played it first when leaving town for a 20 hour Thankgiving round trip, I didn't know that it would be the only thing played on the radio the whole trip. While previous review rant about the first couple of tracks, I think they bouced over the truely great tracks. I found "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!" as a beautifully contradiction on itself. I told a friend about htis track, and he was shocked I used terms like innocent & lovely on something named after a bug. I love the way "The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" transitions between tempos. But my favorite track is by far "Cashmir Pulaski Day". When I fully understood what Cashmir Pulasky Day was about, I was bought to tears.
Most of the time, music shoved at us doesn't deserve our well earned money. This album is worth a listen. This artist deserves our support. This 50 state concept is a pipedream, but I am glad there are still dreamers in the music industry and if this is the result of dreams then I will keep buying.
on July 5, 2005
Sufjan Stevens has been a favorite of mine for quite some time now, but after this album, he may perhaps soon be a favorite of many, many others.
In his project to write an soundtrack for all fifty states, he has so far created very high expectations for each following album. Michigan was his first. It was, in a manner of speaking, absolutly brilliant and quite honest to the spirit and essence of the great lake state. Naturally, I expect equal listening satisfaction from his newest album "Illinois". However, I was greatly surprised by the absolute genious of this album. My expectations were surpassed with stunning new music. It, unlike michigan, is a little more upbeat and jazzy as it proceeds with perfect lyrics and a story behind every song. I feel like I'm learning all about the HEART of the state when I listen. Not only does it include upbeat songs such as "Chicago" and "Come on feel the Illinoise!" but it includes a bit of history for you to identlify with as well. The song "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL" is a perfect, beautiful song that poetically discusses the event. Coldplay has nothing on Sufjan's catchy piano bits. He uses it very well to give more classic worth to his music. "John Wayne Gacy Jr" is a chilling, but gorgeous, track that gives a history as well as a memorable perspective on the well known clown killer, Gacy. He speaks of the victims and their legacies that are better to be remembered than lost without compassion. My personal favorites, as they are extremely catchy and geniously composed are "The Predatory Wasp..." and "Decatur". Of coarse I absolutly adore the entire album for its perfection and quality, but these two songs stick out the most. "The Predatory Wasp..." has a slower beginning with soft vocals and a flute, but then it splits into several harmonies and instruments that compliment eachother most happily...in the end, you'll think you might have been in the happiest place on earth with the happiest people and the meaning of it all fresh in your head, ready to tap your foot as the rest of you is occupied by its multiple lovely melodies. You'll be mad about him when its through...Sufjan, that is.
In general, the album is a wonderful variety of music genres, styles, and subject. Its a perfect theme for him, really. I do believe that this album is highly professional extremely amazing. I honestly know it would be desired by almost ANYBODY. It is versitile but keeps its unity through the transitions and cool use of Sufjan's instrumental compositions. I played it at work and nearly everyone with interest in music inquired about it or complimented its unique but very, very likeable sound
Buy it and I promise you will fall in love. We all need an album like this to keep our heads. An album like this one is something perfect that should be a model for all other artists.
Please buy it. <3 Thanx
on August 23, 2005
There is a riot going on in popular music right now, something called "New Folk" or "Neo-Folk." The practitioners don't really sound alike-- Animal Collective, Iron & Wine, Devendra Barnhardt, Stevens-- but together these artists comprise an important school of contemporary music: organic yet lush, in some cases challenging traditional song form, borrowing from the sounds of traditional folk and folk rock but assembling them in wholly new ways, and managing to avoid evoking James Taylor or Dylan or any of their forebears from before 1990.
This album is a masterpiece of the genre (if Neo Folk is indeed a genre as opposed to a scene), and it is a true gem that will only get better with age. You probably know Stevens intends to do an album about each of the 50 US states, and has already done one about Michigan. Come On Feel the Illinoise is difficult to pigeonhole with "sounds like" comparisons-- acoiustic guitar, gentle vocals, quirky vocals, woodwinds, odd keyboard tones and off kilter rhythms drift in and out. I'll try and define the epicenter of the sound by using these three points: Brian Wilson's grander, more orchestral work; Joni Mitchell; and Phillip Glass. But of course, that doesn't do the album, or the artist, justice.
Illinoise is an album that demands to be heard in sequence, in its entirety. Songs flow into one another, and the work is a singular one, not a bunch of songs assembled and released. You can play this in the background while doing something else; for friends at a social gathering; or on headphones while listening intently to every nuance. It will reward in each setting.
Indeed, this may not be the new folk at all. It is so grand, so shimmering, so compelling, that it may just be the new classical music.
on July 10, 2005
Sufjan Stevens second homage to a U.S. state (Michigan was first), shows a timeless devotion to craft. Stevens writes with honesty and conviction in homage of Illinois. Moments in history are combined with lyrical anecdotes and blended with rich segments of oral history to immerse the listener.
I must admit, I am still looking for evidence of a previous reviewer's claim that this record contains a subversive message of Christianity. To clarify, I see Christian references, however, within the framework of Stevens' album they appear as glimpses into a macrocosm of social tendencies. Rather than proselytizing, Stevens writes a sincere look at many themes relating to the mid-west.
on January 22, 2006
There hasn't been a lot of progressive pop in the last couple of decades dominated by mainstream pop and angrier strains of rock and rap. So this album, and perhaps Sigur Ros' TAKK, can serve the purpose of turning popsters onto art-rock that requires more than a cursory listen and bad attitude, man.
What makes "pop" become "progressive pop"? That's simple-- complexity in music and lyrics. The minute the arrangements shatter pop conventions (verse chorus verse chorus solo chorus chorus fade) and create a sense of adventure both aurally and lyrically, you are into the realm of progrock, art rock, or whatever you want to call it. Think of everything from Brian Wilson's 1966-67 Beach Boys-era SMiLE to Mike Oldfield's 1978 epic INCANTATIONS and you'll have covered over a decade of popularity for the genre. There tends to be a sharp contrast between more complex upbeat sections and quieter segments, and lengthier instrumental passages than is allowed in mainstream pop. Sufjan Stevens twist on the genre is his gentle folkie vocals, although even early Gabriel-era Genesis would seem to be a precedent. Instrumentally, he plays a ton of instruments a la Mike Oldfield, but in the service of his pop opera ILLINOIS rather than Oldfield's instrumental explorations. His love of complex vocal arrangements and atmospheric orchestral interludes puts him closer to the Brian Wilson SMiLE end of the prog spectrum than the mainstay progrockers (YES, ELP, etc) preference for lengthy instrumental segments. That genre tended to rely on unusual guitar sounds and then-cutting edge technology in synthesizers for its textures, while Stevens prefers to use a self-made chamber orchestra to colour his work with endless details to soak up with each repeated listening. At times he even uses multi-layered vocal sections a la YES in their "And You And I" mode. Some have even dubbed his music "chamber-folk" as a spin on the art-rock label. That probably gets as close as anything I have heard in terms of describing this excellent work, although even comparisons to musical theatre have been credibly offered (indeed, I can see the theatre producers lining up already to arrange this for the stage). Chalk all this mania up to musically-starved pop writers if you want, but I think the work is worth the buzz. I do not make these comparisons to draw away from Stevens originality (for instance, his use of minimalism, especially in the closing finale, is groundbreaking for anything even remotely associated with folk music that I have heard), but simply to help people who appreciate these genres feel confident about buying his album. Sufjan Stevens is a great folk singer and great prog arranger, and that just about says it all.
There are a ton of lyrics on this 75 minute album, which makes it wonderful for secondary research, especially given all the historical allusions. Another hallmark of progressive rock is the in-depth explorations of spirituality, history, myth, and other topics that can't be contained in a chorus or three minute ditty. Hence, the birth of the concept album; and Stevens takes this idea to the logically absurd conclusion that he wants to do a concept album for every state in the union! That's one of the things I love about him-- whether you are talking about his music, his lyrics, his song titles, and even his future ambitions, he throws every reviled thing about progressive music right back at you and seems to pull it off. The more you get into the lyrics on ILLINOIS, the more you want to know about the stories and history behind them and their laugh-out-loud titles. There is a bubbly enthusiasm that Stevens conveys when he sings his Christian imagery-laced lyrics (his SEVEN SWANS album was awash in Christian spirituality), which is made particularly ironic when he sings about someone in love with a dying cancer patient: "Tuesday night at the Bible study/ We lift our hands and pray over your body/ But nothing ever happens." Not exactly the words of a patsy for the phony televangelists.
As for individual songs on ILLINOIS, there is simply too much that can be said to really get into it. Briefly, there are the truly offbeat numbers ("Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind..."), the comparatively straightforward folkie songs (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", "Casimir Pulaski Day,"), and the certifiably progish numbers that are so well arranged and sung they give me chills (the incredible "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!", "Come on Feel the Illinoise!", and "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders'). And there isn't even one mediocre song let alone a clunker on the whole album.
It seems perfectly obvious to me that Sufjan Stevens is on the brink of becoming one of America's most important composers. Why miss any of the fun while the rest of the country figures this out--- pick up the CD today! -=== om=-=-=- Nick (SoulQuest7@aol.com)
on August 2, 2005
I saw Sufjan Stevens (pronounced soofyahn) perform live last night in Phoenix and was simply blown away. I have to mention that I only discovered him about 2 months ago while browsing Amazon for a new Iron and Wine release. Stevens was recommended and an "If You Like... You'll Like.." artist. I listened to some samples, bought "Seven Swans" and played it about 30 times! Then I purchased the all the rest of his CD's including this latest one "Illinois"
Sufjan Stevens is on his way to becoming a major artist. Think - a mix of Iron & Wine, Simon & Garfunkel, early Beck, early CS&N, with a healthy dose of Phillip Glass. Stevens manages to expand the boundries of each of those artists. Just as Beck experimented with sampling, Stevens experiments with time signitures, instrumentation, structure and harmonies. He'll take the long repeating chorus which is usually at the end of a song (ala Hey Jude) and put it at the beginning of the song instead. Paul Simon's poetry is rooted in Grenwich Village; Stevens' is rooted in Flint, Chicago, Detroit. He uses brass that sometimes sounds like a Salvation Army Band. He'll switch from a plaintive banjo to a blistering electric guitar. The music is not spit-polished with 28 overdubs to get 1 note right - it is recorded in churches, basements, livingrooms... It's raw, its real and it is intoxicating. Stevens' music is INTERESTING, FRESH and UNIQUE!
His live show was a real trip... back in time. I felt like I was in a 1st period high school assembly/pep rally and the drama club was putting on a musical presentation! As cheesy as that may sound, It's NOT. The music is inspired, played by inspired musicians. His poetry is patriotic, unpatriotic, biographical, sad, inspiring. "John Wayne Gacy Jr" sends chills up my spine.
SUPPORT THIS ARTIST!!!! BUY HIS CD's!!!! You will be getting in on the ground floor of a major musical force.
on September 26, 2005
This album, Sufjan Stevens' 5th and the second in a seemingly impossible 50 States project, is, simply put, ingenius. Beautiful, haunting, incredible complexities are executed in such an expert way that they seem simple and right. From the very first this album is beautiful, quiet, detailed - the research that must have gone into this album is staggering. The opening song is a piano-and-flute based ode to a UFO sighting, the second a tribute to the Black Hawk War, the third a 5/4-4/4 masterpiece dedicated to the World's Columbian Exposition (known as the Great White City), the fourth a soft, tragic piece about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Track 5, Jacksonville, has a nice little banjo-based groove that actually gets your toe tapping. I'll skip a few but wanted to mention track 16, "They are night zombies..." the driving quarter notes in this piece give it a great creepy feel, and the violin riff is great. Mr. Stevens plays so many instruments it's staggering.
In short, of 22 tracks the only criticism I have is that some of the rhymes for "Decatur" are sort of forced. That's ONE criticism of ONE line on ONE song of TWENTY TWO. Buy this album. In fact, buy it from Sufjan's personal site so he makes some money and continues to make incredible records like this one.
on May 19, 2006
Illinois is not really original, rather it is a masterful assembly of well known styles, genres and ideas. But the assembly is so masterful, you are sure you are listening to something novel.
Illinois is a concept album, obviously. And many fine artists put together masterful concept albums in the 60s and 70s (Pink Floyd being the most obvious). But few artists make true albums anymore, much less concept albums. Illinois covers a lot of ground, but it has a few basic themes, lyrically and musically, it keeps coming back to. It even ends where it begins -- with a nod to close encounters of the third kind. You just don't see these types of album's much anymore. Thus, while the conceptual approach is not new, it is not common, which in today's Internet, sound-byte age, makes the approach seem "new."
Most of the melodies and harmonies on Illinois are rooted in folk, but the arrangements are decidedly non-folk. "Jacksonville" is the only song I've ever heard where a banjo, violins and trumpets are harmonizing. And the chanting voices (a Greek chorus, perhaps?), supported by xylophone, remind me of Stereolab's chanting from Dots and Loops. Layered, complex arrangements are nothing new, but arrangements like these are not common.
The lyrics are not cynical, self-absorbed, materialistic or political. Yet they are still interesting -- very interesting. A song about the 1898 Columbian Exposition? John Wayne Gacy? A teenage girlfriend who is dying of cancer? You might expect Dylan to try to tackle Gacy and Talking Heads to sing about the Exposition. But one artist singing about all these things is impressive. Again, nothing new about honest, quirky, interesting lyrics that take more than one listen to figure out the meaning (if there is any at all). But when you layer this aspect of Illinois on top of the growing list of the album's other components, you start to realize the depth of Sufjan's artistry.
Even the Christian themes on the album fit the mold of "old as new." Christian ideas are about 2000 years old, give or take a few years, but their presentation on Illinois sounds new (or at least different) because it does not fit the current, conventional mold of doctrinaire scolding associated with Christianity (or the hollow praise found in "Contemporary Chirstian" music). Of course, Sufjan is not the only indie rocker willing to sing about Chrisitianity in complex, questioning ways these days. "Theologians" on Wilco's A Ghost is Born is about as direct as possible in addressing the topic. (Nor is Sufjan the only artist challenging Postmodernism. See "Young Pilgrims" on The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow.)
Artistry is not constant, thus not every album Sufjan releases will be as good as this one. His 50 state idea is silly and he'll abandon it soon enough. At least he should. The idea makes for nice media copy, but it is restrictive. Sufjan should roam wherever his muse takes him to do whatever he is inspired to do. He should not restrict himself to trying to write a concept album about, say, Delaware.
Illinois is not for everyone. It is long, has challenging arrangements (the chanting chorus can be a bit much at times), defies genre categorization, and cannot be appreciated in passing as background music. But if you are willing to invest the time and energy, Illinois is richly rewarding.