Sufjan Stevens visits “Illinois”

Mike Morrone

Sufjan Stevens invites you to come on feel the Illinoise. The second edition in what ought to be a prolific series of concept albums about each state in the Union (see the 2003 release “Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State”) “Illinois” takes its listeners on a comprehensive tour through the twenty-first state in truly grand style. With this release, Stevens deftly validates the high praises reaped on him by critics and seems poised to take a revered place on the NPR stage and hopefully a national one as well.

Writing from a distinct Midwestern perspective, but not taking the maudlin turns of other artists or albums (Conor Oberst and Bruce Springstein’s “Nebraska” immediately spring to mind), Stevens writes songs full of orchestration, including majestic strings, flourishing flutes and vibrant, well, vibes.

A cease-and-desist letter from DC Comics hampered the release of “Illinois.” The issue concerned the album’s artwork, featuring a rendering of Superman soaring above the metropolis. Initial pressings of the album still featured the Man of Steel, but subsequent pressings have removed the superhero from the cover. (If you see a copy featuring Superman, this reviewer would suggest picking it up, as speculators are betting it will become a collectors’ item.) Between this legal matter and all the attention Stevens has received just for expressing his desire to create an album for every state, Stevens’ masterful indie-pop work, drawing on elements of folk and Americana, might not receive the attention due.

“Illinois” begins its varied journey with “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” Stevens recognizes that the greatest stories are often ones that mingle highlights with quirky, one-off footnotes that give any entity its true character and personality. Gossamer pianos mingle with Stevens’ soft yet engaging voice, making you absolutely forget that he is singing of a possible encounter with aliens.

The two-part, six-minute-and-forty-five second opus “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” toys with the listener, playfully name-checking Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago, Cream of Wheat and the Ferris wheel. The staccato trumpet parts mimic the piano line, and Stevens illustrates his lyrical prowess, wondering, “Oh God of progress/Have you degraded or forgot us?” Part II of the song, “Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream,” is outright phenomenal, serving either as a brief glimpse at one figure in Illinois’ history, or as a possible catharsis for Sufjan.

Stevens can be compared to many different, exceptional artists stylistically and vocally, from Neil Young (on “Jacksonville”) Belle & Sebastian, The Sea & Cake and several more. All these comparisons are apt, yet do not do justice to the artist as a whole, only hinting at a particular facet he exhibits at a particular point in the album.

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” a ballad about the serial killer, exhibits fingerpicked guitar. Its muted narrative offers no defense for this murderer’s exploits. But suddenly at the end of the song, Stevens muses, “And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him.”

“Illinois” is lush (not the Brit-pop band) with instrumentation and literate lyrics. Without explaining to you, the knowledgeable readers, about how each and every single track is full to the brim with exceptional, at times, grandiose anthems about petty statehood historical minutiae, it would be sheer neglect to not mention “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for your Stepmother!” and “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

The former rhymes Decatur with alligator, emancipator, and aviator, without bludgeoning the listener over the head with its eloquence. The latter offers a heart-rending tale about a girl with bone cancer, augmented with naked emotion and, improbably, by banjo.

In an effort to offer constructive criticism of this album, I will offer two points that on any other level should be considered nit-picky and downright irrelevant. One, the titles of some of the tracks are impossibly long, and a little bewildering. Some listeners might find them pretentious. Two, the album itself is seventy-four minutes long, and it’s quite possible that some will not be able to sit for that amount of time listening to all the ins and outs of the Land of Lincoln. (Although it should be noted that those who do will be delighted to the end, for example, the two-part “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders,” opening can transport the listener to some child-like reverie spurred on by a piano line seemingly played by Schroeder of “Peanuts” fame.)

Overall, this album is masterful, a pure delight to experience, without question one of the best of the year. This album comes highly recommended, and it goes without saying that this reviewer is waiting on baited breath to hear the album about Pennsylvania, and to see what impossible narratives Stevens can construct about the highlights and dark sides of topics like Ben Franklin, the steel mills, James Buchanan, Gettysburg, Milton Hershey, Lake Erie and more.