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Album Review

With two states down and only 48 to go, Sufjan Stevens' ambitious musical map of the Unites States of America should be completed — if he puts out one a year — sometime around 2053. It's a daunting task (and not an entirely original one at that), but if each subsequent record is as good as Illinois, fans who live long enough to witness the project's completion will no doubt find themselves to be scholars of both state history and its narrator's shape-shifting soul. Stevens' folk epics, as played by his signature mini-orchestra, have changed little since his 2003 foray into Michigan — a charge that may cause some grumbling among that album's detractors — but there's a newfound optimism that runs through much of Illinois that echoes the state's "Gateway to the West" pioneering spirit. Glorious road trip-ready cuts like "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!," and "Chicago" have an expansiveness that radiates with the ballast of history and the promise of new beginnings. Stevens has done his research, with references to everyone from Abe Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the ghost of Carl Sandburg to John Wayne Gacy — the latter provides one the song cycle's most affecting moments. The lush (yet still distinctly lo-fi) indie pop melodies draw as much from classic rock as they do progressive folk. "Jacksonville," with its four-chord banjo lurch, mines "Old Man"-era Neil Young, disco strings dance around "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!," while the rousing pre-finale "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" is pure Peanuts-infused Vince Guaraldi as filtered through the ambiguous kaleidoscope of Danielson Famile spiritualism. There's a distinct community theater vibe to the whole affair that may or may not be the result of numerous photo shoots in which the players are dressed in adult-style Boy Scout uniforms — it brings to mind the Blaine Players from Christopher Guest's small-town theater parody Waiting for Guffman — but the majority of Illinois is alarmingly earnest. Stevens may be a snake-oil salesman, but he's got pretty good stuff, and like many of history's most untrustworthy wordsmiths, he somehow manages to switch the opportunist off and turn on the human being each time the listener gets suspicious of his intentions.

Customer Reviews

Beauty and Wonder

Four years after its release, I’m still struck by the beauty and wonder of 'Illinois'. The day that I bought the album, I was driving home from the record store and almost had to pull the car to the side of the road because of the feelings that were overtaking me. (Before the reader assumes that I have some exorbitant soft spot in my heart for experimental, folk-infused, orchestral indie music dealing with religious and historical themes, it might put things into perspective to know that my favorite bands are Pixies, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Shins, Kings of Leon, and Interpol.) ‘Illinois’ was the first Stevens album I had ever purchased, though I had listened to some of his songs online, at the insistence of one of my close friends. None of those early listens could have prepared me for this album. While it is a concept album insofar as the songs relate (or at least have some loose connection) to people, places, and events in the history of Illinois, those reluctant to purchase this album on those grounds should know that ‘Illinois’ is anything but gimmicky or kitschy. It can be appreciated on the level of a musical collage of the state, but there is so much more to this work when considered sonically and emotionally. Each song, from the gorgeously haunting opener ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ to the hypnotic instrumental closer ‘Out of Egypt…,’ has its own joyous secret to share with the listener who draws near. When I finished the album that first day I bought it, it felt as though I had just experienced a glimpse of the life of someone it seemed I knew quite well, although we had never met. A broad spectrum of human feeling is conveyed in these tracks—one of the reasons I can return to it again and again. There is life in these songs. There is joy. There is doubt. There is longing. There is hope. There is death in these songs. But in all of these, there is always that beauty and wonder. I would list some of my favorite tracks, but I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from purchasing the entire album…though I will say that ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades…’ moves me like no other song on the album. Not to draw the ire of the iTunes reviewer who covered this album, but ‘shape-shifting soul’?…'snake-oil salesman'?…‘untrustworthy wordsmith’?…‘opportunist’? One would never dream of attaching these monikers to a film director or a novelist, simply because the viewer or reader is uncertain of the artist's personal identification with or position in regard to the message of the artwork—in effect, because we are somehow unsure of the 'genuineness' of the expression. Much of Stevens' early music was informed by his creative writing (he has been studying creative writing at The New School in New York), and as such, the listener must forego the assumption that everything that Mr. Stevens is 'selling' is necessarily rooted somewhere within his own life experiences or personal sentiments; rather, the listener must understand that the 'truth' of these songs lies somewhere within the realm of the imagination or creative spirit of the artist. To conclude that Stevens is peddling something at times disingenuous is akin to saying that Dostoevsky should be read with a wary eye because he seems so adept at writing despicable, yet empathetic, characters alongside his protagonists, or to mistrust him for changing some of his themes in his later years. And since when have we ever had to trust the artists whose work we praise or admire? Music, like literature and the visual arts, is a form that can be as true-to-life and true-to-self as the artist creating it desires. I don't think it fair to hold a musical artist--however much one believes he wears his particular values, faith, or worldview on his sleeve--to some standard of transparency regarding motive, unless the thing we are actually evaluating is the artist, not the artwork. Music can be autobiographical, or it can be biographical. It can be persuasive or confessional. Didactic or musing. Grounded in fact or an expression of pure fancy. My earlier sentiments on the album are open to the kind of criticism, however harsh, that the reviewer of this album employed, but that is a result of the nature of my expression: It is an account of what I feel and believe which I have decided to share as such, and it therefore can be scrutinized for its veracity and the motivation behind my choice to post it. I simply don't see the value or sense of a reviewer passing judgment on the motivation or ‘truthfulness’--which can never be fully understood based on the artwork itself--of a musical artist. iTunes would do well to stick to the reviewing of music and avoid the pronouncing of judgment on the character of the musicians whose music it is they peddle.


...[words cannot describe how amazing this album is]...

Simply Great

This is an amazing work of art. It evokes emotions most musical works fail to attempt.


Born: July 1, 1975 in Detroit, MI

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

A singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose music deals with both the personal and the spiritual while accompanied by simple but striking musical patterns, Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens started venturing into the music world while attending Hope College as a member of Marzuki, a folk-rock band based in Holland, Michigan. Following the release of two full-length albums with the group, Stevens decided to go solo in late 1999, investing fully in a career that was waiting to shine by itself. Sun...
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