on August 2, 2005
I absolutely loved "Greetings from Michigan" but I must admit, I thought the whole "50 albums for 50 states" was a pretty thin premise and that he'd have quite a tough time outdoing the debut. Then along came "Illinoise".
Stevens' skill as a composer of complex, emotionally-laden melodies is only increasing with time and practice, as is his ability to tap into the legends, triumphs and shames of a populace.
The album is a suite, designed to immerse the listener into the cultural identity of the place, and for that reason it is a shame to give any of the songs precedence over the others. However, if there is one song on this album that deserves special mention, it has to be "John Wayne Gacy", a truly chilling and heartbreaking piece that highlights Stevens' real gift: sympathy - for victim and aggressor alike. He uses simple words and a soaring, theremin-like vocal line to bridge the gap between horror and acceptance, exposing the good an evil that lies in every heart. It still brings me to tears even after repeated listens.
Once again, his gentle take on the Christian faith comes to the fore, but as in "Michigan" it is less a cloying tack-on than a simple and truthful expression of thankfulness the source of his immense creativity and hope. It can't help but leave the listener thinking that if everyone knew Sufjan's version of God, the world just might be an immeasurably better place.
I came away from "Illinoise" with a renewed sense of faith -- in Sufjan himself. If he continues as strongly down this path he's set for himself we may be seeing the emergence of a true American musical genius, an unflinching Chronicler-in-Chief of the nation's dreams, crimes and acheivements.
I live in hope!
on March 24, 2007
Sufjan Stevens' ode to the state of Illinois is probably his best album yet. It is rich in sounds, it is quirky and strange without distancing its listener, and always engaging. The marching band aesthetic gives the album an etheral, innocent, complex sound that carries the album from the odd introductory "Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" right through to "Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run".
Just by seeing this album on store shelves, you know it's no ordinary album. Even the cover art, depicting a fantastic bricolage of Illinois figures and symbols, even the wildly thought-out track titles and the strange way they are arranged, with outros and intros all over the place indicates that this is not for a passive listener. And yet anyone who is remotely interested in something even a LITTLE different than top 40 radio could extract something out of "Come on Feel the Illinoise"... there are just that many layers.
One comment about the album (and I am unsure as to whether this is a criticism or a praise) is that it is difficult for the disc to be broken apart. If one of the songs is separated from the others, it just doesn't sound the same. Folks with ipods: when you're in the mood for Stevens' 'Illinoise' turn off shuffle and pick the album. As a whole, the album is much like a soundtrack to a ridiculously good musical spectacular about Illinois that never was (or will be, for that matter).
Stevens is publically a very spiritual artist, but the album not only refuses to alienate, but actually ATTRACTS secular listeners. Stevens' spiritual sensability lends to a sweeet, calming, intricate listen.
Overall, "Come on Feel the Illinoise" is a triumphant album with not a single bad track. It is clever and fun and strangely inclusive, even though it is full of inaccessible stylistic elements and in-jokes for the typical Chicago resident. Uplifting, pretty, adventurous and just very, very cool, you can't skip this album!
This inspired concept album is incredibly rich and varied in its themes, musical styles and presentation. The lyrics are poetic whilst the music may be characterized as soulful folk-pop with orchestral infusions. The banjo plays a leading role but there are some scattered bursts of electrical guitar here and there.
The songs encompass emotions from joy to melancholy, and are interspersed with colorfully titled brief instrumental snippets like A Short Reprise for Mary Todd or vocal ones like One Last Woohoo for the Pullman. For all its dazzling variety, the album is surprisingly cohesive and the following are my personal favorites:
The celebratory Come On Feel The Illinoise with its intricate arrangement, the buoyant Decatur with its witty rhyme scheme and lilting beat, the poignant and solemn Casimir Pulaski Day, the sensitive treatment of a horrible subject like John Wayne Gacy, the mix of sadness and elation in the rousing and catchy tune Chicago, Man Of Metropolis with its segments of hard rock guitar and the tender Tallest Man.
Wow what a listening experience Illinois proved to be. On these exquisite melodies, Sufjan's intimate voice is often framed by the most elegant backing vocals over a rich and graceful instrumental mix. The music is infused with a stirring sense of spirituality. Illinois is the most inspiring and uplifting album I have heard in a long long time.
Only time will tell if Sufjan Stevens manages to churn out enough albums for all fifty states. Since 2003, he's covered only two of the states. Maybe he can combine some state names...
But whether or not he covers the whole USA, Stevens' will keep charming people with his music, as he does in his latest album "Illinoise." And no, that is not a typo. It's sort of folk -- dreamy acoustic pop, with songs about aliens, God, and wacky interludes. This is folk music for the Wes Anderson fans.
It opens with a dreamy intro about a UFO, written in elusive language that could hint at either aliens or a religious vision. Your pick which it is, but Stevens' sweet voice and birdlike instruments make it sound ethereal... before it switches over into the choral singing and inspiring horns of "Black Hawk War." By the time it's over, you'll feel like saluting.
Stevens uses that as a springboard for lighter material -- inspiring rock anthems, mellow acoustic music, and vaguely ominous balladry. Some of the songs wouldn't be out of place at a down-home barn dance, and others are sparkling indie bliss. And yes, some songs dabble at both styles, like the sweeping dancey "Man of Metropolis."
By the last stretch of the album, Stevens switches over to a folk-dreampop style, with cute little interludes between the songs. "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!" wins for most unique title, but it also shows Stevens off in his eerie folk best. It's a sound that continues its melancholy way, right to the end -- the sparkling "Out of Egypt."
Yep, "Illinoise" is one of those albums that qualifies as an experience -- it's the sort of music that transports you away, and doesn't set you back down until it ends. Though it borders on maudlin in places, Stevens' songcraft and musical skill are enough to make every song on this album a treasure.
Stevens has your basic folk voice, but he uses it with such sweetness and smoothness that he sounds amazing. Sometimes he just sings as is, and sometimes he lets the chorus of backing vocals swell up behind him, singing harmony to every line. And then there's the music, which adds further harmony to his vocals. Ah yes, the music. It's a colourful patchwork of basic folk -- acoustic guitar, drums, bells, horns, piano and what sounds like a xylophone. It's bright in some places, dismal in others.
And it's full of Stevens' bittersweet lyrics, where he manages to make us pity a serial killer, mourn a city's passing, and wonder what those lights in the sky are. He has a definite way with words ("i can't explain the state that I'm in/the state of my heart... he was my best friend"). And though Stevens often plays coy about the spiritual undertones of his songs, the passion in them is undeniable ("In the tower above the earth, we built it for Emmanuel....").
It's going to be hard to top the eerie folk of "Illinoise," but Sufjan Stevens will undoubtedly do it. Whatever state he chooses next. Bittersweet and beautiful.
on November 9, 2015
This is quite literally one of the best things I've listened to in a while. It was so good that I tried making love to the CD and when I lay in my bed ridiculously satisfied I found out the CD was on repeat. Although, I now require medical attention, it was the best night of my life.