10 Years On: Revisiting Illinois


Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a joker. When he released his album, Michigan, in 2003, it marked the beginning of his 50 State Project. He was supposedly going to write an album for every state in the Union. This audacious venture seemed to be confirmed when he released his follow-up 2 years later, Come On Feel The Illinoise, more commonly known as Illinois.

But it was all a lark. Stevens had no intention of creating an album for all 50 states, despite the fact that the first 2 albums were almost universally hailed as brilliant works. When he released the true follow up to Illinois many years later (not including the B-Sides collection, The Avalanche), he had dropped the banjo and folk trappings for an electronica addled album whose lyrics eschewed clear storytelling for more personal yet more abstruse meandering.

Now, on the verge of a new release, Carrie & Lowell, which promises to be a return to his folkier side, this is the perfect time to dust off an old feature around these parts (read the other 2 entries here and here) and give Illinois the ol’ 10 Year revisit.

It’s a long album with long titles and this will be an appropriately lengthy post, so strap in and get comfortable. Here we go.

Illinois Cover (Sufjan Stevens)

 “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

The album begins almost angelically, with a silky piano line and a floating flute while Sufjan introduces us to the two main themes that will weave themselves throughout the album: Christian imagery and arcane historical factoids about Illinois. One of his strengths as a songwriter is his ability to craft lyrics that are packed full of details and yet still feel open to personal interpretation and revelation.

It’s a quick intro, but it sets the mood.

“The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience, but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'”

And then those rumbling drums and escalating voices change the mood. This instrumental piece is the first of many on this album. It’s interesting that in 2005, when this album was released, buying individual songs online had already caused a major shift in the industry (that’s ongoing today). People were cherry-picking their favorite tracks and skipping whole albums, and here comes Illinois with instrumental tracks and interludes that beg you to listen to the whole thing front to back. This is the first indication that this won’t be your average Indie Rock/Folk/Whatever album.

“Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: The World’s Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream”

This is where the meat of the album truly begins. Broken in to 2 parts celebrating, respectively, the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sandburg. If you want a breakdown of all the references in this song (and throughout the album) head over to Genius.com. They’ll do a much better job than I could ever hope to do.

The transition in this song is my favorite part. It loops and escalates like a spring until popping free and opening up to the second, melancholy half with the lyrics, “I cried myself to sleep last night /
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window.” It’s both celebratory and contemplative, a mixture of emotions best summed up by the refrain, “Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level.”

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

And then, bam! This is the first stunner of the album, and probably the only song in history about a twisted serial killer that still manages to pack a massive emotional gut punch. It helps that Sufjan’s voice is never more pretty and delicate as when he sings:

“Twenty-seven people
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs

Oh my God
Are you one of them?

This might be the song that most divides the pro- and anti-Sufjan camps. It’s beautiful but creepy, all the more so when the singer draws a parallel between himself and Gacy in the suggestion that they both have secrets under the floorboards. I think this was the first song that truly caught my attention and made me want to read the lyrics. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it’s a pretty ballsy move to put this song just 10 minutes into an hour and 15 minute album.

“Jacksonville”

The 1-2 punch of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Jacksonville” right next to each other is the first indication that we’re in for an unparalleled journey here. Stuffed full of Illinois’ history, the song manages to take Andrew Jackson, Helen Keller and a whole host of landmarks and weave together a narrative that’s both a paean to freeing the slaves and a rallying cry that ends up sounding like something a school band would play as its football team runs to victory.

“A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons”

This is one of those transitions whose title takes longer to read than the song actually takes to play out. It’s just a breather before jumping into the true centerpiece of the album.

“Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”

Beginning here and running through “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Illinois makes its case for being the best album of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Look, if you don’t like old timey music, this one probably isn’t going to be for you, but there is no denying that Sufjan is doing some fascinating tricks with his lyrics here.

Essentially a tour through the entire state of Illinois, the song still manages to tell the story of a stepmom trying her best to make her stepchildren happy even as they do “everything to hate her.” Like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” before it, Sufjan finds a way to imbue an unexpected subject with surprising emotional resonance.

“One Last “Whoo-Hoo!” for the Pullman”

The title says it all.

“Chicago”

If the album has a ‘single’, this is it. Partly because of its prominent placement in the indie darling movie, Little Miss Sunshine, this song is the one track that even your friends who have never heard of a banjo will have on their iPod. I love this song as much as I love the actual Chicago.

It probably helps that the song involves someone taking a road trip to 2 of my favorite cities, the aforementioned Windy City as well as New York City. When I first listened to this album in Charlotte, it was the first year of my project and the thought of exploring the country was still an enticing, terrifying dream. I love to travel by plane or train, but nothing will ever beat a road trip.

“You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

If “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is an emotional gut punch, this is the emotional body slam of the album. Again, while I was listening to this album in 2005, I was living on my own for the first time in my life and I was just starting to really explore what it meant to live without the obligation of faith. So how odd is it that the most insightful song on the topic was written by a Christian?

Telling the story of a female friend with bone cancer (at least, that’s how I read it), the narrator talks about their intimacy in the face of this horrible disease. There is one line that has always resonated with me:

“Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I know it’s not meant to be a criticism of faith or god. I grew up with the message that “Sometimes God says ‘No’.” Yet, as a freshly minted atheist, those lyrics summed up everything about my religious experiences: “God always says ‘No’.”

It’s also a song about young love (again, in my reading of it), and how strange it can be for it to feel so powerful and yet be so helpless in the face of reality (another parallel to religion).

A tragic tale that ends with the mournful “And He takes, and He takes, and He takes.” It’s a song that simultaneously celebrates and criticizes faith depending on the audience. That’s an impressive line to walk.

“To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”

I don’t have a lot to say about this other than that it’s my favorite instrumental of the album. And an important one, because it gives a necessary pause after “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

That break is especially useful because this song begins with oddly dissonant guitar noodling and pounding drums before giving over to one of the softer tracks on the album. I’m all for dissonance in music (Penderecki is my favorite composer), but I’m always a little put off by that choice for this song.

I suppose it’s meant to mark the midway point of the album. If I was listening to Illinois on a record player, I could see flipping over the vinyl and having that be an effective kick off for the second half. On CD (or, now, on my computer), though, it’s just kind of an awkward jolt.

Still, it’s a lovely song about Superman and childhood summer vacations (and, of course, more). That’s about all I have to say on that.

“Prairie Fire That Wanders About”

Though there are lyrics, this song feels like an instrumental break probably because there is no lead vocal. Most of the tracks on this album use background singers like a Greek Chorus, singing out details to fill in or embellish the main story. Here, the whole track is all Greek Chorus. It’s an interesting transitional song but not likely to be anyone’s favorite.

“A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze”

It’s a conjunction of drones, dummy.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”

Another beautiful story about youthful love, this time between two friends. There are a lot of question marks here. Is this Sufjan confessing to having fallen in love with a male friend as a child? Is it romantic love or just the love of a friend? Is the narrator meant to be a boy at all? How much of this album are we to assume is autobiographical and how much is just Sufjan being a storyteller?

I choose to not care. I’m less interested in the question of hetero- or homosexual love as I think the more compelling aspect of this song is how frightening and potent young love can be, especially when unrequited. The narrator looks back on a lost love, a friend who ran away, perhaps scared off by emotions that hit like a “terrible sting and terrible storm.” (The wasp metaphor in this song is one of Sufjan’s best.)

Add on top of that the gorgeous interlacing of lead and backing vocals throughout the song and you’ve got one of my favorite tracks on the album.

“They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!”

There aren’t many opportunities to describe Sufjan as funky, so I won’t pass this one up: That bass line is funky. This is easily the oddest song on the album (which says something considering there’s a track about a serial killer/rapist). Beginning with the shouted spelling of “Illinois” and other words, the first vocals sound like the chanting of undead cheerleaders.

True to form, Sufjan finds the human depths within monsters, using his lyrics to seek sympathy for zombies. It’s a surprisingly affecting trick, especially when he bemoans how they have been “at last forgot.” It’ll make you rethink Dawn of the Dead.

“Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell”

Another instrumental with a title that tells you all you need to know…

“In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth”

…followed by another instrumental reprieve. Though, I guess, this one isn’t technically an instrumental as it’s just a soft hum of voices. Whatever.

“The Seer’s Tower”

On an album that no one is going to accuse of being “cheery”, this is easily the most morose track. It begins with the narrator looking down from a tower as the earth burns and the apocalypse approaches and it ends with him sleeping in the “deepest grave.” In between there is a terrible mother and a loving father and the all destroying force of Emmanuel. Unnerving in the best way.

Probably not the song to play at your next party.

“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders: The Great Frontier/Come To Me Only With Playthings Now”

And then there are hand claps and peppy horns. Sufjan knows how to take a left turn. Like track 3, this is broken into 2 parts. There is a lot of intermixing of religious and American symbolism throughout the first part of the song, one of Sufjan’s favorite moves. It seems to be a kind of cry for Americans to rise up and fight. For what, I’m not quite sure.

The song takes a sudden downshift 2/3rds of the way through and like “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” it becomes a showcase for the chorus as they sing about Jane Addams, Benny Goodman and a bunch of other people who I’m sure were all very important to Illinois. It kind of feels like Sufjan had a pile of references he hadn’t found any other songs for so he stuffed them into this one.

If there’s any true flaw on this album, it’s that this, the last song with lyrics, ends on such an anticlimactic note. There’s no story to hold onto, nothing that really draws the listener in. It’s a fine enough song, just kind of a let down after so many emotional highs (for me, of course; someone else may find something meaningful in the repetition of “Oh Great…”).

“Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few”

A riff on a single note that leads to…

“Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From My Sandals as I Run”

The final track is also an instrumental piece. Whether it be “Vito’s Ordination Song” from Michigan or “Impossible Soul” on The Age of Adz (or even “Djohariah” on the All Delighted People EP), Sufjan tends to end his albums with pretty heavy songs, so this is an odd outlier. Perhaps he realized that this was an especially dense album and he wanted to give the listener a calming outro by which to end their listening and get on with their day. If so, it works. It’s not the most memorable finale, but it does effectively draw the curtain to a close.

And that’s it, Illinois 10 Years On. It’s still one of my favorite albums (top 3 on my Last.fm most listened list) and one of the few albums that I still feel compelled to listen to front to back.

It’s 2015 and indie folk is no longer as prevalent or relevant as it was when I began 10 Cities / 10 Years, but a decade of shifting musical landscapes and evolving industry dynamics hasn’t changed one thing: Illinois is a masterpiece.

 

 

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