Sunday, June 28, 2009

38. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens

 Despite it being the state he grew up in, Sufjan managed to cover Michigan in only one album. Maybe it was because he grew up there that he knew there was too much to write about, there would be no way for him to ever write the complete soundtrack to Michigan. With Illinois, he seems to have set out with that dream - to write about everything Illinois had to offer. It took him two albums, this gigantic sprawling masterpiece and the follow up collection The Avalanche. And now, in this era of Blagojevich and Obama, I can imagine that he's wanting to make it a trilogy.


Well, whether he moves on from this state or not, it's hard to think that he left much out from this album alone. This thing is just packed. It weighs in at well over an hour, with 22 tracks. Yes, some of them are instrumental interludes that don't even scratch a minute in length, but others are stunning suites of multiple movements that close in on the double digits. Just like the rest of the album, even the scale of the tracks shows tremendous variety.


Honestly, the variety that he manages in an album that has subjects that all relate to one thing - Illinois - and all pretty much have the same instruments and styles, it's just astounding. One moment you're in the slow, serene piano chords of the opening track, and next you're the flourish of instruments marking "The Black Hawk War (And no, I will not repeat the rest of the title)". There's a eerie, light number about a serial killer that resonates on all the right frequencies and alternatives between ominous mumbling and astral falsetto. There's a simply beautiful little piece that covers every detail about Jacksonville, swelling and constructing upon itself as if the town was being created by the music, not the other way around. Hell, there's even a song about zombies.


Earlier I mentioned in passing that Sufjan Stevens makes me fall in love with America. Well, it's actually a little bit more than that. Not only does he impart the sense that America is a lovely place for someone like him to live, he stirs me up in such a way that it's all I can do to stop myself from packing a bag and driving overnight to Chicago, just like he does, in one of his songs. The joy and the sadness; the love and regret; the experience and the naivety - they all seem to have a richness that I can only conclude must be found in Illinois. It's a paradise. It's a heaven on Earth. To inspire such much, Illinois must be the greatest place in the entire universe. I can believe it, at least.


Not that everything he writes specifically needs to take place in Illinois. "Casmir Pulaski Day", the name of a tear-jerking little tune about young love lost, may be a holiday in the state, but those emotions, those doubts, those could be seen in any human in any place on the globe. Same with "Chicago" - that spur of the moment trip could have been to any city. The real trip was one people make every day without moving - the introspective trip. This is the real appeal to the album. He's writing about growing up, living, loving, leaving and dying Illinois, but he might have never gone. The experiences are human experiences, global experiences. Listening to the album and hearing your voice and your thoughts and your words, thinking: "This Illinois place must be full of people like me!" - that's the real magic here.


So if that's what's going on, why bother choosing any one state to make half an album about things we all see at home? Well, it's so he can fill the rest of the album with songs about Lincoln, local blues legends, the Columbian Exposition, Indian land wars, John Wayne Gacy, Superman, The Sears Tower, The Great Chicago Fire... and dozens of other things that slipped over my head. Illinois is evidently rich with history, beyond what I ever would have guessed prior to listening. It's practically US History 101 on top of everything else.


I've already gone on about how gifted Sufjan is at simply writing simple good songs, but it bears repeating on this, his best-crafted album. The instrumentation is often chaotic, gigantic and winding, but no single component is ever grossly complicated. It is a Rube Goldberg machine of music, a hundred tiny, simple apparatuses functioning perfectly with one another in a convoluted masterpiece of a machine, but the end result is even simpler still. He shows a talent for writing great parts for every instrument involved, but few amount to more than just wandering scales, repeated chords or occasional plunked down notes. Even his backing vocals never become too complex, usually just supporting him on high notes, or creating a subtle background harmony. Every part might just be a small cog or pulley, but it works so gracefully that such easiness cannot be faulted.


Running with this machine analogy, it could be accurately said that the force powering the whole thing is the dramatic voice and lyrical prowess of Sufjan himself. Now, when I say dramatic, I don't refer to a booming, 500-horsepower voice that echoes over all others - no, I refer to the power of the whisper, the suggestion, and above all, his lyrics. His voice might never rise above a mezzo-piano, but his words hit like that cardinal did the window at the end of "Casmir Pulaski Day".


His lyrics still might be the strongest point on an album with no weak links. He speaks more descriptively than poetically, painting pictures of events, people and places, but making no effort to impart their impact any more than they do themselves. Such overblown emotional explanation would be unnecessary. Hearing each line, you can just imagine for yourself what your reaction would be. And it's probably right, because Sufjan is trying his hardest to relate to you and it usually works. Even on such fantastic and dreadful situations as full blown zombie apocalypse and the mind state of a rampaging serial killer, it seems so close to home.


I cannot imagine now how many hours I've spent listening in near worship of this album. Although it may not set out to redefine how I see music, revolutionize the way I think or simply blow my mind like some other albums, it succeeds at every goal it could have set for itself with flying colours. Here, Sufjan has committed a state to music, irreversibly tying so many emotions, so many thoughts, so many memories and so many brilliant ideas to this wonderful music and the wonderful state of Illinois.

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