a.k.a. "Sufjan Stevens invites you to: Come on feel the Illinoise"
An Album which is for Various Reasons Fully Deserving Of a Title in Huge Letters and Not One, Not Two, but Three Increasingly Verbose Subheaders
(Not to Mention a Really, Really, Really Long Node)
I try to node things other than music and musicians, but lately it seems like those two things are all I've been writing about. Egregious omissions such as that of this album are the reason why. That there is such a dearth of information about Sufjan Stevens's masterpiece Illinois on Everything2 is rendered inexcusable by the following list of media which named it the best album of 2005:
Further, according to Metacritic, Illinois was featured on a total of twenty-two "best of 2005" year-end lists.
This adulation, in addition to being part of the reason for the gratuitous fanfare at the beginning of this node, makes it difficult to understand why Illinois, until now, didn't have a node here.
With all the accolades and the fact that no one else has attempted to do rhetorical justice to this album, it occured to me that perhaps no one thought they could! I confess to some hesitation in attempting to do so myself: hence the hemming and hawing here. But hell, you know, Sgt. Pepper has a node, and in terms of intimidation, Illinois has nothing on Sgt. Pepper. So onward! To Illinois!
A Comparatively Brief Overview
Illinois has been called many things, not all of them good. Critics charge that it is boring, or that Sufjan Stevens sounds like a wuss, or there are just too many gosh-darn instruments playing at once. But no one can deny Illinois's ambition and Sufjan Stevens's musical prowess: this is an album that is almost 75 minutes long, with eight songs over five minutes in length, intended to chronicle and portray an entire U.S. state, history and all. But it's also chock full of catchy melodies and bursting with instruments and words and odd time signatures and the occasional really compelling story.
That it is so long can make Illinois doubly daunting, as it really works best as an album, listened to all the way through in one go, something that seems increasingly rare in the era of iTunes and downloadable music. It has a few songs that work on their own, but the entire album is tied together with shorter songs that don't stand alone well and even shorter interludes that are completely untenable without some sort of context. Like Kid A and, perhaps more recently and appropriately, Funeral (another fantastic indie album and one that has been well noded here), Illinois won't hold up well if you put it on shuffle.
The length of Illinois does make it a bit of a challenge, I admit, and moreover, because it is so dense in parts, it will be difficult to absorb without repeated listenings. But like another album I've noded recently, I can promise you that it's worth it to put a little bit of effort in. This is one of those albums in which you'll discover something new every time you listen, and one which is so diverse and sprawling that some parts will inevitably start to stick with you before long.
Below, then, is a guided tour of this — quite frankly — amazing album, if you want to know what to expect. Otherwise, you can just dive right in.
A Guided Tour of Illinois (the album, not the state)
For an album of such scope, Illinois begins mildly with UFO Sighting. (The actual name of the song is much longer, but I'm going to be abbreviating song names such as this one for the sake of readability and instead softlinking to the full names.) Just over two minutes long, "UFO Sighting" is driven by a gentle yet impulsive piano riff in some strange time signature that I can't identify and you'll get a shout out if you can. It's peaceful and restless at the same time, mellow and consonant, lingering on one chord for several beats only to change when you least expect it.
Though "UFO Sighting" is something of a vignette, it encapsulates a lot of what's good about Illinois. The time signature is an unfamiliar one but it never seems forced. The dueling flutes that come in are complex but don't distract from or overshadow Stevens's voice, breathy and carrying a sincerity that's belied by his quirky song titles. His lyrics are woven with a Christian spirituality that surely causes unease in many Godless indie kids such as myself but which, in spite of its near-ubiquity, is not overbearing or judgmental.
After "UFO Sighting" has wound down, as mild in its conclusion as in its introduction, a timpani roll signifies the beginning of The Black Hawk War, another vignette, the polar opposite of "UFO Sighting" in every aspect but its length. (The song's length, not the length of the name.) Whereas "UFO Sighting" is relaxed, simple and solemn, "The Black Hawk War" is all bombast, rolling crescendoes, thick wordless choirs and blaring horns. Illinois tends more toward "UFO Sighting" than "Black Hawk War," but taken together, they give you a decent idea of what to expect for the remaining 70 minutes.
Come On! Feel The Illinoise! is arguably where this album starts. Due to its length and heft, it could be considered the centerpiece as well, although it has a lot of competition. It's got two parts, the first painting a picture of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 in broad strokes, the second a more finely detailed rendering of what happens when the poet Carl Sandburg visits one in a dream.
It sort of makes sense when you listen to it.
"Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" brings in another round of Sufjan Stevens trademarks: an odd time signature again (the first part is in 5/4 or 5/8, depending on whether you know more about such things than I do); lyrics that alternate between the abstract ("Cannot conversations cull united nations?") and the concrete ("From Paris, incentive, like Cream of Wheat invented"); and about a zillion instruments playing at the same time.
After the nearly seven minutes of lively, fast-paced and relatively cheerful music in "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is a bit of a left turn: a somber, down-tempo song about a horrific serial killer, which perhaps explains why one was left out of the previous song. Here, perhaps, is where Sufjan Stevens's lyrical skills shine: the song is largely a terse, accurate and dispassionate description of Gacy's background, pierced by one of the most affecting moments on the entire album about one minute and 20 seconds in.
Jacksonville is a rare song: one whose melody I don't particularly like but which nonetheless gets stuck in my head. It's a folky song (I probably just say that because of the banjo) beefed up with strings and horns, containing plenty of historical references to such as the Underground Railroad — on which Jacksonville was a major stop — and President Andrew Jackson, after whom Jacksonville was named.
The first of many short musical interludes on Illinois is Reprise for Mary Todd, a 50-second string lament for Abraham Lincoln's wife.
Another scattershot montage, Decatur, follows: another folky (i.e., again, banjo) song, this one showcasing Stevens' ability to rhyme words ending in "-ator" without compromising the historical and regional cohesiveness of a song. The melody is pleasant and bolstered by the whimsical harmonizing such as that on the winning line "Stephen A. Douglas was the great debater but / Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator!"
Nine seconds long, One Last "Whoo-Hoo!" is just that.
The next song, Chicago, is another weighty one, clocking in at just over six minutes and resplendent with a soaring string line and choir. Unlike "Feel The Illinoise!" though, "Chicago" has an introspective and contemplative lyric, forsaking the intricate regional portraiture of the last few tracks for sweeping declarations about emotions, travel and change. The repetition of such phrases as "all things go" may seem weighty but the music is confident enough to support it, and "Chicago" succeeds in its mixing of the personal with the universal.
Casimir Pulaski Day has a lyric which is only tangentially related to the title, which holiday is when a friend dies from bone cancer in the song. This is one of my favorites on Illinois: it lacks the density of many of the other longer songs, but the melody is simple and gorgeous and the lyric is heartbreaking in its direct but delicate treatment of loss and faith. The Christian ethos that makes so many indie kids squeamish is prevalent here, but it's complex and questioning, not mere single-minded devotion. The song is simple in every way but emotionally and it's like a sucker punch.
A slow, busy and perplexingly titled interlude, To the Workers..., follows, a welcome reprieve from the heaviness of the previous two songs.
Probably the most (intermittently) rocking song on Illinois, The Man of Metropolis is about Superman! Or perhaps God. Well, definitely Superman, but maybe God also, via metaphor. Apparently there is a city in Illinois named Metropolis, which is also the name of Superman's city, but the lyric to this song is oblique enough that the references to a "man of steel" could even indicate its being about steelworkers and the working class, and all this is to say nothing of the pun on "steals our hearts" in the song's full title. Probably the only thing on which everyone can agree is that the chorus in this song is chunkier than anything else on the album.
Returning to the "regional montage" style of song, and also evoking the vignette style of the first two songs in its length, Prairie Fire has an elliptical lyric beginning with a seemingly free-associative list of features of Peoria, IL (of course). In contrast to the jagged distorted guitar stabs in the chorus of "Man of Metropolis," the instrumentation here is lush and soft, and the second part of the song brings in more odd time signatures: three bars of 5/4 followed by one of 4/4, concluding with alternating bars of 4/4 and 2/4.
A 20-second "wall of sound" interlude, A Conjunction of Drones follows: a user on songmeanings.net calls it "quite possibly the best song ever written about Sufjan Stevens having an existential crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze,"* and I'm inclined to agree with him.
Perhaps related to the existential crisis, The Predatory Wasp is a reminiscence about a summer camp experience triggered by seeing a wasp on the wall: a friendship lost for reasons too vaguely elaborated upon to guess at. Like many other songs on Illinois, "Predatory Wasp" has a quiet verse and a chorus like sunlight bursting through the clouds, complete with choir singing most of the word "Hallelujah."
Night Zombies!! is the most irresistibly titled song on Illinois, but the string-heavy tune actually uses the zombie theme for a sober reflection on mortality and the transience of importance. Heavy, I know, but hey: zombies! The chorus is another non-stop name-dropping extravaganza, full of names of people, things and places, past their prime and dropping into irrelevance.
In case you missed it the first time around, hidden as it was under the pre-chorus in the middle of "Night Zombies!!", the next interlude is That String Part Again, a little more prominent.
More of a prelude to the next song than an interlude, In This Temple sets the mood: quiet, deep, gentle, sounding like it was recorded inside a two thousand year old temple, reverberating, ending abruptly but lingering a few more seconds.
The Seer's Tower seems to have nothing to do with Illinois besides the pun in the name; it's more religiously tinged than any other song on the album, thick with subtly apocalyptic references and chanting echoing that in the temple of the last song. It's the slowest song on the album and probably bears the weightiest lyric, though it's not laden with layers of instruments like many of the others. A simple piano and the aforementioned choir are all that rest on Sufjan's voice before the song drifts to a close with the choir drifting in and out like a tide.
The next song kicks it back into high gear: the final and longest of the "epic" tracks on Illinois, The Tallest Man made me think it was a redux of "Feel the Illinoise!" the first time I heard it because of their initial similarity. Like "Feel the Illinoise!", "The Tallest Man" starts with a dead-simple piano riff in an odd time signature (this time it's 5/8 alternating with 6/8) which is joined by lively horns in short order. The second part doesn't come until more than two-thirds of the way in, but like in "Feel the Illinoise!" it is less rambunctious and in a tamer time signature.
"The Tallest Man" is the last song on Illinois with a lyric, but it is more about beginnings than endings: the Great Frontier is its central focus, and after one last list of Illinois notables, a choir asks: "Given what you lost, are you better off? / Given what you had, has it made you mad?" The last lines on the album are unambiguously optimistic ones, imploring you to "Celebrate the new. Celebrate the few. / It can only start with you."
Sufjan Stevens then takes 50 seconds to celebrate the (once) new and the few in 21 Riffs and Variations, another interlude intended as a tribute to early 20th century jazz musicians.
And Illinois concludes with an instrumental, insistent and forward-looking in its title and music as were the last two tracks. Out of Egypt begins with arpeggiated descending piano chords over a pulsing, driving and constantly shifting cluster of woodwinds and strings, evocative of movement, perhaps of rain, joined by a repetitive vibraphone riff that gets drowned out and finally re-emerges to stand alone, and then, just as unassumingly as it began, Illinois ends.
That Track List Again, Since I Don't Think You Saw It All The Way Out In Greenville
- Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
- 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!"
- Come on! Feel the Illinoise!
- The World's Columbian Exposition
- Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream
- John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
- A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But for Very Good Reasons
- Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother!
- One Last "Woo-hoo!" for the Pullman
- Casimir Pulaski Day
- To the Workers of the Rockford River Valley Region, I have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and it involves shoe string, a lavender garland, and twelve strong women
- The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
- Prairie Fire That Wanders About
- A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
- The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
- They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhhh!
- Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell
- In This Temple, as in the Hearts of Man, for Whom He Saved the Earth
- The Seer's Tower
- The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders
- The Great Frontier
- Come to Me Only With Playthings Now
- 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
- Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the dirt from my sandals as I run
* In the interest of citing everything: http://www.songmeanings.net/lyric.php?lid=3530822107858566172
Now someone can address the fact that there's no writeup about the state of Illinois here. What's with that?