This is a review of the new Sufjan Stevens album Illinois! You can stop right now if you want. If you’re reading this webzine, or any webzine, or if you listen to NPR or your local college station, you can rightfully assume that Stevens can do no wrong, and on his latest disc, your assumption will be entirely on the mark. Stevens is the singer songwriter equivalent of Superman, who gets both a song devoted to him, and his visage prominently featured in the cover art [editor’s note: which has since been removed due to legal issues]. The singer can throw out extraordinary turns of phrases as effortlessly as the man of steel can throw a bus 20 city blocks. Yet despite their supernatural talents both men are, at their core, relatively modest guys. Although both have their weakness, kryptonite for Superman, lack of restraint for Stevens, they are petty, easily ignorable flaws that never hamper the style with which both are able to perform heroics.
“COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE! [Capitalization mandatory] Part 1: The world’s Columbian Exposition, Part 2: Carl Sandburg visits me in a dream.” Not even the longest title on the album, and already we’re using multiple sentences. A track this spectacular warrants it and the metamorphosis this track undergoes at its halfway point is nearly impossible to put into words. To do it little justice, it starts out a jazz number about architecture and ends several minutes later a folk song replete with delicate string arrangement where Stevens admits “I cried myself to sleep last night,” asking himself “are you writing from the heart?” The next track is the answer to that question, and it is a resounding yes. “John Wayne Gacy, JR.” a stoic piano based number chronicles the Illinois-born serial killer, and contains a couplet destined to bring silence to any conversation. The line “Twenty seven people / even more / they were boys / with their cars / summer jobs / oh my god,” is sung in a voice teetering on a whisper, as if it were Gacy trying to calm one of his victims. The song ends with the album’s most haunting moment, its closing line where Stevens divulges, “in my best behavior, I am really just like him.” The lyrics of Illinois are what happen when the beautiful poetry of John K. Samson or Isaac Brock are stripped of their tangled metaphors and shoved into the mouth of a plainspoken man.
And the music! Although there are certainly other songwriters who have jumped from genre to genre as much as Stevens does, there are none who have done it with such energy and love. When Elliott Smith tried it, he sounded half-hearted, like he really wanted to strip back down to a solitary guitar. When Rufus Wainwright tries it as he did on the colossal failure Want Two, it sounds tacky. Perhaps it is because Stevens plays 75 percent of the instruments on the album, but the backup singers, trumpet, banjo, accordion, organ, and host of other instruments all blend together into a cacophony of percussion and melody. There is not one second when the musicianship on this album is anything less than inspired. The disco of “They are Night Zombies…” sounds just as convincing as the chug-rock of “Chicago,” which is just as enthralling as the banjo-led “Decatour.”
But you’ve heard this all before, and you’ve probably heard it with more eloquence and wit than what I have put forth. So what do I have to add to the chorus of praise? A slight voice of dissent. What, after all of this, is the flaw that I mentioned earlier, which stops this from being a great album, despite being a great collection of songs? It is too much- far too much. The closest comparison point (and the last truly extraordinary singer-songwriter album) I can think of for Illinois is Badly Drawn Boy’s epic debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. That album, clocking in at well over an hour with 18 tracks, worked so well because it had an arc, one that goes deeper than the natural quiet-loud-quiet track progression. That album had an arc that strung through each song’s lyrics, as well as through the numerous instrumental tracks. On Illinois, each of the 22 tracks sound like they were simply thrown at random onto the album, and the constant instrumental interludes (which range from 20 second noise experiments to jazz piano solos) break down any momentum that begins to build. I have yet to listen to this album in its entirety, and I don’t know if it would benefit the music to attempt the task. Taken in small doses as a hastily assembled mix tape of extraordinary songs, the album is easily enjoyable and very rewarding (I’d suggest taking breaks after track 9, then again after track 15).
In a music scene where singer / songwriters seem to associate a smile with a failure and emotional openness with some sort of wound, it is simply revitalizing to have an adventurous, brilliant artist like Sufjan Stevens making records. Yes, Illinois is a very bloated record, and I already have made a copy of the disc without the instrumentals, but that does not mean its many adventurous, life affirming tracks are any less brilliant.