1. When I first heard Illinois some years ago, I thought I had my hands on a sometimes glorious (ie. “Chicago”) and sometimes ultra-depressing (ie. “Casimir Pulaski Day”; these two tracks placed side-by-side to demonstrate Sufjan’s range of emotion, to say nothing of his other strengths) album that had some filler. Easy targets include the silly “woo-hoo” track and the twenty second drone track that exists only for the title. Harder targets include certain “realer” songs found after “They Are Night Zombies!!” Years later, I’ve come to discover two things:
1. i) This is the best album of 2005, by a landslide.
1. ii) This is the best album of the 2000s, by less of a landslide.
2. Crucially, this is about Illinois in song and album titles only. More aptly, it is aboutAmerica, and – were I daft enough – the world at large: these are stories about serial killers, teenage love, cancer, religious confusion, identity crises. (Tellingly, he replaces he word “Chicago” of the centrepiece track with “Toronto” when he performs it here, and the song retains its original power.) And I say the word “stories” because it’s obviously meant to be taken as a collection of short stories, much like Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Mind (which he named a track after on the previousSeven Swans).
3. The song titles here are sometimes, necessary for the betterment of the music: the predicament referred to in, “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament,” for example, is about the highest unemployment rate in the state. On the other hand, sometimes, they are just long. See: tracks 2 and 14.
Elsewhere, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” is, of course, a reference to Superman (as seen in the cover), and yet, Superman is not named in the title nor the song lyrics. The implication is that “Only a real man can be a lover” isn’t explicitly Superman, but it could be Sufjan. Or you. Or I.
4. If Michigan is Sufjan Stevens’ dry-run to Illinois, The Age of Adz his most ambiguous album, Carrie & Lowell his saddest and Seven Swans his quietest, Illinois is his most essential: ambiguous at times, sad at others, quiet elsewhere; colourful and in motion always. Yes, colourful, which I realize is a term I throw around a lot, but question: have you seen the list of instruments that Sufjan plays on this album? It’s all the instruments, Janet. All the instruments.
5. Specific examples of what I mean: the stomp and crunch of the aforementioned “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” – placed after two of the album’s sadder tracks – looks ahead to the similar guitar workout of the classic rock version of “All Delighted People” and “Djohariah” (on the somehow underrated, or at least, under-discussed All Delighted People EP) and “Impossible Soul” (on Age of Adz); “The Seer’s Tower” would have been a low-light on Carrie & Lowell, but it would not have been out of place. And both of Sufjan Stevens’ “states” albums begin quietly (“Flint” vs. “Concerning the UFO Sighting”) and soon get rollicking (“All Good Naysayers, Speak Up!” vs. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”).
6. Interestingly, a lot of orchestral folk artists began breaking out around the same time as Sufjan, including Joanna Newsom (2004), Andrew Bird (2005) and the Mountain Goats (2005). Excepting Joanna, Sufjan is the most classically-minded: the album closer and “The Predatory Wasp” are both reminiscent of the great American minimalists (specifically, Philip Glass), and the finale of “They Are Night Zombies!!” competes against Kanye West/Common’s “Be (Intro)” in 2005 for some of the best counterpoint in popular music.
7. There’s thought given to producing a palindromic structure in this album such that he places the two longest tracks as the third song and the third-last song, and these function as the first and final crescendos of the album. Unfortunately, “The Tallest, the Broadest Shoulders” is also one of the album’s weakest songs, though still worth hearing for its commercial jingle introduction.
8. A lot of thought is given to link “Let’s Hear That String Part Again” (a string part that’s frankly worth hearing) as the comedown to “They Are Night Zombies!!”, with the brief ambient interlude “In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man”, with “The Seer’s Tower”; each of these songs flow into and out of another perfectly.
9. Unlike Joanna or Andrew* and even other supposedly sad folk artists like Bon Iver, Elliott Smith or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Sufjan Stevens is lyrically direct and specific, such that “Casimir Pulaski Day” will rip your heart out. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what it did to the folks in the Antlers, who wrote an entire concept album around the same concept a few years later.
Almost as a riposte against to criticisms that his music and themes are too religious, this is a song where Sufjan explores religious confusion^: the floccinauciplification of prayer against cancer (“Tuesday night at the Bible study / We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens”); how the narrator doubts God at the end of the song and once his beloved has died (“And He takes and He takes and He takes”).
But even brushing past the themes of identity on that song, the reason why this song works better than the whole of Hospice or any of those sad folk artists is the lyrical specificity: “I remember at Michael’s house / In the living room when you kissed my neck / And I almost touched your blouse” puts you in Michael’s house with that pre-adult anxiety. Elsewhere, he stresses “With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied” as one of the song’s only repeated lines, painting a picture of distress. “I am crying in the bathroom…”
And, of course, he’s vague when he needs to be: “When your father found out what we did that night” says too much without saying anything at all, and the thing is, I’m not even sure the narrator and the girl had sex, given his anxiety of touching her blouse or his apologetic stance about kissing her.
10. Speaking of Elliott Smith, there’s a parallel between Smith’s “Son of Sam” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” – both artists end the respective songs with a revelation about themselves being akin to the serial killers of either song. That being said, Sufjan’s song is better: its less cluttered, and the piano and guitar get more frantic as the song g”oes on, to say nothing of the way Sufjan sings “Oh my God” (you know what I’m talking about), which is more powerful than Smith could ever muster.
11. There’s been a lot of criticism against “Decatur,” which I think stems from the same logic of anti-Paul McCartney hatred; songs aimed at children (“Decatur” playfully rhymes “Hate her” with “Take her”, “Emancipator”, “Denominator”, “Abominate her,” “Appreciate her”, etc.) are viewed to be less mature and thus, less worthwhile by cynical adults. (These people also likely think there’s no distinguishing in quality between The Velveteen Rabbit and Rainbow Fish.) Put simply, this is likely the best song with a banjo as the driving instrument.
12. There are few melodic triumphs that can rival “Chicago.”
13. “I fell in love again; all things go, all things go!”
*Not to say that Joanna Newsom is never specific, because she sometimes is (ie. “Does Not Suffice,” a career highlight) or that Andrew Bird is not a worthwhile artist because he’s a pretentious lyricist.
^Religious confusion is also explored by Simon & Garfunkel, one of the greatest folk artists who no doubt inspired Sufjan; for more proof: he quotes “The Sounds of Silence” several times through “All Delighted People.