Sufjan Stevens Illinois

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2005]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: folk-rock, folk-pop
Others: The Danielson Famile, Stereolab, Badly Drawn Boy, Califone

"Casimir Pulaski Day" starts off with an acoustic guitar playing a simple D-C-Am-G progression with a bass line built in to the strum. After the short intro, Sufjan starts to sing over the guitar. The lyrics are soft, simple, almost childlike, but their subject is nothing but: a boy's childhood sweetheart (presumably) is diagnosed with cancer, and he has to deal with her inevitable death. Sure, it sounds like an A Walk to Remember rip-off, but the subject matter is treated with such care and delicacy in the lyrics and the singing that it doesn't come off as such.

As Sufjan finishes off the first pair of verses, a banjo begins to play softly over the guitar. As the next couple verses start, the guitar is left alone, but soon the banjo comes back, playing a simple line in between vocal phrases. In time, a trumpet comes in during another break between verses. Each addition builds another layer of harmony on top of the track, and finally, as Sufjan launches into the final set of verses in which the girl finally dies, the instruments all come together in unison, creating a familiar yet haunting effect. As the lyrics draw to a close, the instruments die down; the banjo plays quietly for a few bars. Then, all of a sudden, the guitar is back in full force, and the horns and banjos wail along with the singers, and the progression trades the G at the end for an Em, and it's like the sudden shift to a minor chord represents a final, devastatingly melancholy acceptance of the girl's death -- the music itself is that affecting, it speaks that much.

The song works staggeringly well, and it's a testament to Sufjan's attention to detail that his songwriting and arrangements are constructed carefully enough to create such an effect. It's this sort of detail, which Sufjan brings to almost all the songs on Illinois, that makes the album so incredible. "Chicago" might seem a loud mess when you first hear it (especially if you've heard Sufjan's solo banjo version of it), but the structure of the song is really perfect: the booming choruses and near-silent verses create such an interesting and intense dynamic. "Predatory Wasp" has somewhat similar dynamics, with soft guitar pluckings, flute, and piano in the verses and choruses that sound gentle and tender for most of the song -- except for one loud, unrestrained brass, percussion, and vocal interlude that gives the song a grandiose feel above and beyond what could have been achieved otherwise. Most of the songs on Illinois are also meticulously put together and well thought out, resulting in some very gorgeous music.

And for most Sufjan fans, this must be extremely welcome news. Both Michigan and Seven Swans showed Sufjan's skills and potential, but in both albums it was painfully evident that he had some troubles with arrangement. Michigan was almost ludicrously adorned with strings, horns, bells, glockenspiels, and god know what else. Seven Swans, on the other hand, was almost sparse to a fault. Both albums showcased Sufjan's immense songwriting skills but also made glaring the problems he was having in planning out his instrumentation. And fortunately, Illinois sees Sufjan starting to find an appropriate middle ground; he still needs to make a bit more progress, but he's almost there.

Almost. Despite the improvements over Michigan, there are still times you wish he would cut back a little, and not just with his array of instruments. Sufjan hasn't brought much moderation to this album: song titles longer than this review and 30-second "songs" in between real tracks (the only things that stop the average song length from being about five minutes) are glaring excesses. And a couple of the songs really aren't that good, especially the Zombie song (yeah, like I'm actually going to type that beast of a title out). You find yourself wishing he would have cut the interlude tracks, got rid of some other songs, and shortened the titles -- some quick editing would have made this hour-and-a-quarter long album even closer to perfect.

But these really are minor grievances considering the level of care that much of this album exhibits. The overwhelming theatricality of Illinois is really only in the record's secondary details; the music itself is still lush but much more restrained than in Michigan, and that's really what matters. As I've said, Illinois certainly isn't perfect, but it does do a couple important things: it proves that Sufjan has the skill and the talent to prove flexible and long-lasting, and that it's not much of a stretch to expect even better albums from him in the future. Even if it takes 48 more states to get there.

1. Concerning The UFO Sighting
2. Black Hawk War, The
3. Come On! Feel The Illinoise!
4. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
5. Jacksonville
6. Short Reprise For Mary Todd, A
7. Decatur
8. One Last 'Woo-hoo' For The Pullman
9. chicago
10. Casimir Pulaski Day
11. To The Workers Of The Rockford River Valley Region
12. Man Of Metropolis, The
13. Prarie Fire That Wanders About
14. Conjunction Of Drones, A
15. Predatory Wasp, The
16. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!
17. Let's Hear That String Part Again..

18. In This Temple
19. Seer's Tower, The
20. Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders, The
21. Riffs And Variations On A Single Note
22. Out Of Egypt

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