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Customer Review

196 of 209 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm looking forward to the rest of this road trip..., August 13, 2005
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This review is from: Come On Feel the Illinoise (Audio CD)
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.
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