This evocative musical journey rattles around the geography of our state in a smart, deep way even though, according to the liner notes, it was made in Brooklyn. Stevens shows a compassion for the history, horror, and oddities of our state that urbanista/os will especially appreciate.
Take these lyrics, for instance, from Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother:
Those lyrics sent me on a search about the alligator of Decatur.
Our step mom we did everything to hate her
She took us down to the edge of Decatur
We saw the lion and the kangaroo take her
Down to the river where they caught a wild alligator.
In one part of his John Wayne Gacy, Jr., Stevens lets out the most anguished, chillingly beautiful "oh my god" in reaction to Gacy's crimes. You hear that overused phrased in a completely new way to information you stopped thinking about long ago. Yet, the song ends with lyrics that disturb in their own right:
And in my best behavior
I am really jsut like him
Look beneath the floorbaords
For the secrets I have hid.
His play on the Sears Tower as Seer's Tower made me think about that building anew, too.
Not surprisingly, I find myself listening to the album over and over as it is as musically lush as it is lyrically. He uses instruments that evoke an old time prairie feel -- banjo, accordian and, as the liner notes say, hoots and hollers. There are other times when I'm certain I hear a Philip Glass Songs from Liquid Days influence.
Stevens is also wise enough to stay away from Abraham Lincoln, who as I've blogged about before, is rich in parody and irony as well as history. Stevens recognizes the former President is too difficult to succinctly, lyrically classify. Lincoln doesn't make an appearance in the music -- only on the CD insert. (His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, however has a brief interlude named for her entitled A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons.)
Nor does Stevens attempt to write a song "about" Chicago. Rather, he writes a very personal song that's set, partly, in Chicago and again he plays with the words:
I fell in love againAccording to Stevens' label's website, he grew up in Michigan, and he's intending on doing an album for every state. Illinoise is his second; the first was Greetings from Michigan.
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
As one reviewer wrote aptly,
Sufjan Stevens sure is ambitious . . . simple melodies, punched up with erudite lyrics and frequent appearances by a full orchestra, a horn section and an honest-to-goodness choir—everything here smacks of an epic reach. And the weird thing is, it totally works.
While Stevens’s let’s-put-on-a-musical approach could easily come off as precious, he’s got just the appropriate mix of sincere emotion, songwriting chops and arranging skills to pull off everything from a two-part, three-movement ode to the 1893 World’s Fair to a quiet, moving acoustic meditation on serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
It could’ve been a massive train wreck; instead, Illinois is alternately funny, sad, thoughtful and heartbreaking—and one of the best albums of 2005.
Update: He does mention Lincoln once -- in the song about Decatur, "Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator."