Illinois / Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty, July 5)
Remember that party we were at? Yeah, well, let’s go back and change the smoking jackets into pea coats, the pleather sofas into your older brother’s hand-me-down futon and the martinis into PBR. Then we’ll invite some wimpy boys who’ve reclaimed their traditional, righter-than-left beliefs as traits to bolster their sincerity, and then we’ll turn into the girls that fall in love with them despite our devout faith in faithlessness, in socialist anarchism and casual sex. And during our perennially nerdy music discussion we’ll stumble across the concept album, and we’ll say how we love that we’ve returned to a time when people aren’t afraid of cohesive themes and characters and reprises and fifty-four word-long song titles, and how we wish more artists weren’t afraid to be as eccentric as we are. And someone should shout, “SUFJAN Stevens!!” and we’ll all raise our PBR in salute.
On Illinois Sufjan Stevens has found a perfect balance between gorgeous earnestness and impish pokes at Illinois, at music, at the concept album and the people who love and hate them. As a rule concept albums are contrived and pretentious, and I’m sure a lot of people hear a six second song entitled “One last ‘Whoo-hoo!’ for the Pullman”--literally one whoo-hoo--and they groan, but I tend to be a soul that finds such tomfoolery pleasantly amusing. Or, at least on Illinois I find them amusing. I also find it amusing that some people are pissed off because this album isn’t truly about Illinois. Mostly it’s namedropping and random folklore references that could be substituted for anything that happened in any other state. So really it isn’t a successful concept album. I don’t really care what kind of album this is. I grew up on three minute pop tunes and commercial breaks that shortened my attention span, and so it’s impossible for me to consider anything more than the sum of its parts. Sure there’s a half-minute non-song entitled “In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth” and sure “The Seer’s Tower” might possibly be the worst song I’ve heard all year, but I can concede these to an artist’s necessary egocentricity and move on to the chipper “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders.” That’s what god created the skip button for isn’t it?
I could say that Illinois is pretty and leave it at that, but then I wouldn’t be telling you anything you hadn’t already realized. The opener, “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois” consists of the minor, gentle swelling of piano and flute under Stevens singing in his reticent voice about aliens as if invoking the muses for his imminent odyssey. And who would’ve thought that John Wayne Gacy could be the inspiration for one of the most beautiful songs released this year? On “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” bass, piano, and guitar are at once cooperative and at odds with one another; above this augmented, hollow harmonies create an urgent, ethereal tension. Stevens ends with, “And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid,” an unexpected allegory that makes up for anything saccharine he tries to push on us later.
And there is sugar galore on this album; Sufjan Stevens is a sad pop poster boy, with his boyish good looks, reticent voice and propensity for melancholy melodies. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a simple song whose innocence matches the quality of Stevens’s voice. In austere two-part harmony he tells the story of a boy trying to make sense of his girlfriend’s imminent death. The song could easily turn into a sorry and didactic Christian attempt to explain god’s mysterious ways; instead Stevens has no answers, no words of comfort, just the complications, the resignation to the fact that “He takes and He takes and He takes.”
One way in which Stevens is able to rise above the maudlin traps that ensnare his sensitive contemporaries is in his nontraditionally structured songs. “Casimir Pulaski Day” contains no chorus but remains altogether charming. On Part I of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” there are sound shifts and a clever use of rhythm that gives the illusion of time signature changes when actually the romp is persistently 5/4. Part II moves into common time and invokes dramatic strings. “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” does use a shifting time signature and also a Part I/Part II split, the first half being cheery with hand clapping and trumpet, the second somberly hopeful with a polyphonic chorus and weeping strings.
The second way Stevens is unusual is by his thorough musicianship. Outside of trumpet and strings he plays all of the instruments on this album, the long, diverse list of which includes guitar, piano, flute, banjo and glockenspiel. Any song, like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!,” that relies on an oboe for its oomph is fine by me. All of these instruments on Illinois come together to create an array of sounds, from the softer rock tunes, to the vaguely ragtime “Decatur,” to the mix of string quartet, banjo, and electric guitar on “Jacksonville” that falls somewhere between lazy bluegrass and poppy jazz. On the romantic “Chicago” Stevens creates a lush sound with the bass on the low end, moving up through full harmony of voices and strings, topped by fluttering guitar and majestic trumpet. Among this resonance Stevens’s diffident voice stands out sweetly like a modest boy in a grade school chorus.
So this album could easily be annoying because it is so cute, but the cuteness is often grounded in a sadness that is acquiescent and universal instead of indulgently miserable. I admit some of the lyrics are little better than something you could find in the journal of middle school Catholic school girl (“Celebrate the few. Celebrate the new. It can only start with you.”), but this is not an album of lyrics; rather, it is one of tales and life and legend and humor. Jesus Christ, it is a concept album! I get it! Critics be damned. But Illinois isn’t necessarily the theme. More the state and all of its glory and inanity is used as a means to relay Stevens’s personal concept: the climb out of that dejection every sad pop star feels, the egress of which reveals a love for god, a wonder at the world, and the ability to laugh at oneself.