Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Illinois"- Sufjan Stevens


Who would've thought that from 2003's "Michigan", would come "Illinois" just two years later? Not to mention putting out an album in between the two fifty states project LP's. Sufjan is a beast of a songwriter. From the long song titles, the jazzy piano lines, the flourished classical elements, the variety of songs (from introspective folk songs, to grandiose epics), this album brings Stevens in with gusto, pazazz, but still singing with his quiet whisper of a voice.

First of all, "Illinois" has 22 songs. With song titles ranging from 1 to 52 words and styles ranging from tear-jerking folk (Casimir Pulaski Day) to jazzy, string flourished upbeat pop songs. From the song titles, you can tell a lot about his humour that's obviously hiding behind his soft-spoken image. There is so much life in this album, though. The songs talk about quiet memories in small towns in Illinois, big towns (Jacksonville, Chicago), sadness, and happiness. By the time your ear hears the first piano line in "Come on Feel the Illinoise", you'll be convinced, along with me, that this album is truly one of the greatest of our time.

"When the revenant came down/we couldn't imagine what we'd found". The opening lines of "Illinois". A strength of Sufjan is the tremendous modesty that comes off from his tunes. It seems as though he never boasts too much. His voice almost always remains a whisper; but doesn't lack the confidence or presence that a full blown shout has. Parsed among the dozen or-so 3-7 minute tracks, there are about ten interludes/outros/reprises. The first of these instrumental interludes, "The Black Hawk War, or,..."; which seems like the perfect narrative to a tribal fight scene. Like I mentioned earlier, the jazz influenced, "Come on Feel the Illinoise Parts 1-2", is probably the most upbeat song on the record. It not only shows the tempo highlight, but the song is also one of his most impressive lyrically. "Oh god of progress/have you degraded or forgot us?/where have your walls gone/I think about it now", then to "I cried myself to sleep last night/ and the ghost of Carl [Sandburg], he approached my window". There is no doubt in my mind that Stevens is a well read, intelligent individual, and his songs definitely do justice to that.

The first glimpse of the folky side of Stevens (on this album, anyway), is "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", which seems almost like a part 1 to "Casimir Pulaski Day". "Jacksonville" sounds just as much like the Dead's "St. Stephen" as it does a Stevens song. "Decatur, or..." is a nice mix between up beat and folky. With Stevens' signature banjo punches keeping the beat. He is joined on this track by his brother, also a pro marathon runner, who harmonizes. The two sing, "Our step mom, we did everything to hate her/she took as down to the edge of Decatur". Stevens' guitar-meets banjo guitar playing sounds just like Jerry Garcia and Lindsey Buckingham. Now, I know that seems like it's a harsh similarity. But look at the three of them as songwriters, and there is a lot of similarities; now look at them as guitar players, with all three of them being fluent on the banjo as well. Now does it make sense?

"Chicago" takes the album to a completely new level. This song is as grandiose and epic as "Stairway to Heaven" to me. The blasting horns, the Rhodes lines, Stevens' whisper, the choir joining on the chorus; this song is just as grandiose as those 70's rock epics, and I hope in 20 years they'll look back "Illinois" and say the same about "Chicago". "I fell in love again/all things go, all things go/drove to Chicago/all things go, all things go". This song is what takes this album from "Album of the Year" territory, to "Album of the Decade" territory. Immediately from the strong orchestration on "Chicago", we're taken back down the the melancholy folk we've come to expect from Stevens with "Casimir Pulaski Day". This song, apparantly, about a teenage lover of Stevens who is diagnosed with bone cancer and finally passes "on the first of March, on the holiday". This song is definitely the tear jerker. His whipsery voice is his strongest quality in down-tempo songs like this, which tracks the events of Stevens and his lover's life from teenage years, to the present situation. The narrative in this song is so vivid that you are practically there, in the hospital room with them, and just as well, at the bible study, the navy yard, and the quiet houses. Once the words are through, the song is taken into a beautiful passage of choir-esque "da da da's" and trumpet/trombone lines. If there was one song that could make me cry, it would be this one.

"The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts" is a combination of "Come on Feel the Illinoise" and the folky songs on the album. A song where Stevens is, *gasp*, playing an electric guitar, whoa! The next songs on the album are mostly interludes, with a few more genuine songs, "The Wasp of the Pallisades...", "They Are Night Zombies...", and the rest are the lo-fi folk meets Sufjan orchestration. With "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" returning to "the Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts". The album's closer, "Out of Egypt...", is an instrumental classical led beauty that fades in and out. Which leaves me wanting more, and satisfied, and wondering which state will be next on the 50 states project.

Key tracks: "Come on Feel the Illinoise", "Chicago", "Casimir Pulaski"
Listen if you like: Belle and Sebastian, Iron & Wine, early Decemberists

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