Art of the State: Banjo-strapped songwriter gracefully straddles the sullen/silly divide
Sufjan Stevens is a precocious fella. After announcing in 2003 that he’d devote albums to all 50 states (thus keeping the Great Indie Concept Album Boom churning well beyond the inevitable White Stripes/Shins/Coldplay reunions a few decades hence), he produced the luminous, lush Michigan. But, with a casual smirk, he just as quickly deviated, with 2004’s wistful Seven Swans.
This year finds him back on track, steering south on 75, west on 80, through a spot of Ohio, and into Illinois, a unique, remarkably ambitious 22-song cycle. With string quartets, banjos, choirs, brass and Stevens himself credited to over 20 instruments, it sounds as if his fractured folk spirituality was arranged by avant-Americanist (and SmiLE co-conspirator) Van Dyke Parks. There’s a sweeping, dramatic grandeur to the production—see the cinematic bustle of the title track—as if Stevens’ Illinois were viewed in hurtling panorama from scuffed train windows.
Despite a predilection for the chilling (“And in my best behavior / I am really just like him,” Stevens sings on serial-killer ballad “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”), the mode of Illinois—as it reads simply on the spine—is playful. Song titles are effusive (and alternately CAPITALIZED), occasionally taking as long to read as they do to listen to, such as the 19-second “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the GREAT GODFREY MAZE.” (And that’s not even the longest title. Nor the shortest track.)
But, mostly, the playfulness coils in Stevens’ melodies—their sing-song natures seeming half-reluctantly resigned to joy—and his jaunty orchestrations, which lilt with theatrical enthusiasm. “I can’t explain the state I’m in,” he puns on “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out To Get Us!” after reeling off a stylized bridge crammed with Illinois landmarks. It’s typical Stevens irony.
Full of Googlable titles (“CASIMIR PULASKI DAY”), Illinois could easily inspire as much fanatical footnoting as the Fiery Furnaces’ 2004 tangled-up-in-bleeps epic, Blueberry Boat. Occasionally, like the Furnaces, Stevens’ cleverness gets the best of him, and he inserts bits of precisely rhymed Illinois history at the expense of a song’s emotional content, such as a verse about Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in the midst of the pleasingly pastoral tumble of “DECATUR, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
Still, there’s emotional heft to spare, particularly on songs like “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”—two of the most gorgeously crafted songs in recent memory.
The intricacy of the record never dulls, even when the songs blur into an alternating pattern of Stevens’ breathy narrative pronouncements and baroque instrumental tangents. If the value of individual compositions is a bit lost, the landscape is open, a flowing anthology of stories whose characters’ dreams and morals reflect freely off one another from across county lines.
Stevens’ arrangements, humor and historical scope all aim for that archetypal writing-workshop moment of weird revelation: spaceships descending on “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois,” a lover dying of cancer in “CASIMIR PULASKI DAY.” When Stevens swoops suddenly from the detached to the personal, he pulls strange and beautiful fish.