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The best travel writers skew their journeys into pointed narratives, writing the story of the landscape by seizing all the weird, awkward bits that make it distinct. On first listen, Sufjan Stevens' latest installment of state-based chamber-folk, Illinois, sounds dangerously similar to 2003's Michigan, all chirping vocals and copious orchestration. Both records inadvertently validate East Coast stereotypes of tough Midwestern values: This is earnest, hard-working music, morally rooted and technically precise.
Still, Stevens has always been a folk singer more in theory than in practice. He routinely ditches folk's scrappy, stripped-down aesthetics, but consistently embraces its stories-of-the-people unanimity. Consequently, Illinois is less about place than spirit. Stevens dutifully celebrates and indicts all the appropriate landmarks, isolating the highest and lowest points in Illinois history, but at its best, the album makes America feel very small and very real: A boy crying in a van, a girl with bone cancer, stepmothers, parades, bandstands, presidents, UFOs, cream of wheat, trains after dark, a serial killer, Bible study.
Musically, Illinois is strange and lush, as excessive and challenging as its giant, gushing song titles. Despite employing a small army of backers (including a string quartet, the Illinoisemaker Choir, drummer James McAllister, trumpeter Craig Montoro, and a pile of extra vocalists), Stevens is more forefronted than on the comparably solo Seven Swans. Manning nearly every instrument in his arsenal (and some beyond-- Stevens recorded the piano parts at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn), Stevens conducts his friends with impressive grace. Stevens' pipes quiver generously; his vocals could be easily (perhaps accurately) read as precious, but they're really more intimate than emo, and always beautifully echoed by his backers.
The colossal "The Black Hawk War" cartwheels slowly into a climax of strings and horns, gurgling and pushing, ostensibly signifying (with much aplomb) the violent return of the Sac and Fox Indians to Illinois. Stevens may be deploying state propaganda, or validating Black Hawk's push home, but no matter how grave its reality, the moment still lands like a giant, neon-cased WELCOME TO ILLINOIS billboard. Trumpets blare, submission looms, our eyes widen, it makes sense: Illinois. Is. The. Greatest. State. Of. All. TIME!
The excellent "Casimir Pulaski Day" (named after an Illinois state holiday honoring the polish-born victor of the Battle of Brandywine) is a heartbreaking story of late winter death, bravely sung over rich banjo; the bubbly "Decatur" (the title of which is, awesomely, rhymed with "alligator," "aviator," and "emancipator") features one of Stevens' most undeniable melodies, the kind of pretty, tinkling cue that sends everyone in earshot twirling through the streets, jazz hands and all. Matthew Morgan yelps solid backing bits (see their gorgeously squeaky harmony on "Stephen A. Douglass was a great debater/ But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator!"), while Daniel and Elin Smith (of Brother Danielson, and the Danielson Famile) chime in for a campfire finish, complete with self-applause.
Stevens has a remarkable habit of being rousing and distressing at the same time, prodding disparate emotional centers until it's unclear whether it's best to grab your party shoes or a box of tissues. The gut-punching "Chicago" cagily celebrates the innate (and deeply American) tendency to employ highways as escape routes, ditching old mistakes for new swatches of land, new plates of eggs, new parking lots. Impossibly propulsive, each calm, harmonized, Illinoisemaker cry of "All things go!" pushes harder, promising liberation, by death or by automobile: "If I was crying/ In the van with my friend/ It was for freedom/ From myself and from the land," Stevens chokes, voice shaking over a haze of drums, strings, and shimmering keyboards.
"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." traces, with alarming accuracy, and over a hazy swirl of acoustic guitar and piano, the pathology of Illinois' most infamous serial killer: From 1972 until his arrest in 1978, Gacy was responsible for the torture, rape, and murder of 33 boys and young men, many of whom were discovered buried under the floorboards of his Norwood Park home. Lyrically, Stevens nails the specifics (as a kid, Gacy was slammed in the head by a swing, resulting in a blackout-inducing blood clot in his brain; he routinely donned a clown suit to entertain at a local hospital; victims were typically immobilized with chloroform-soaked cloths), and shifts perspectives gracefully; anchored in first-person, the song's narrator prods Gacy's mother and father, his neighbors, his victims, himself. More than any other track here, "Gacy" highlights Stevens' literary prowess, perfectly packed with nuance and detail.
At seventy-four minutes, Illinois is an exercise in patience; considering how long it takes to dog paddle through all the gooey orchestration, chugging through Stevens' meticulous arrangements and parsing out the melodies, Illinois is a bit of a commitment. Its 21 tracks consist of a handful of transitional snippets (many arresting in their own right), and plenty of good stuff ("The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulder", in particular) is buried way in the back, rewarding those who persevere, and in both theory and execution, Illinois is huge, a staggering collection of impeccably arranged American tribute songs.
1. Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois
2. 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 till they are off our lands!"
3. Come On! Feel the Illinoise! / Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream
4. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
6. A short reprise for Mary Todd, who went insane, but for very good reasons
7. Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step-Mother!
8. One last "Whoo-hoo!" for the Pullman
10. Casimir Pulaski Day
11. To The Workers of The Rock River Valley Region, I have an idea concerning your predicament, and it involves an inner tube, bath mats, and 21 able-bodied men
12. The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
13. Prairie Fire That Wanders About
14. A conjunction of drones simulating the way in which Sufjan Stevens has an existential crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
15. The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us
16. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!
17. Let's hear that string part again, because I donâ€™t think they heard it all the way out in Bushnell
18. In This Temple As in The Hearts of Man For Whom He Saved The Earth
19. The Seer's Tower
20. The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders / Part I: The Great Frontier / Part II: Come to Me Only With Playthings Now
21. 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
22. Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the dirt from my sandals as I run