|by Blair Fraipont|
|ARTIST: Sufjan Stevens Album: Come On Feel the Illinoise! Label: Asthmatic Kitty/Sounds Familyre
Attempting with what would seem an incredibly arduous and time consuming task, Sufjan Stevens commenced his 50 states projects two years ago with his third album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State. That album took the listener on a harrowing journey across the 11th largest state in the union. Gratefully, Stevens strayed far from a historical didacticism which could have plagued the music in favor of a more personal if not joyfully idiosyncratic approach. Illinoise shares and continues Stevens' journey through America to the land of Lincoln.
The admirable quest to unearth hidden riches and truths from each of our 50 states comes as an overwhelming task for the song-writer. Yet, Stevens takes generous turns at references from historical to fictional to literary. What is attractive about this music is the zealotry which Stevens exudes throughout the record. The title track focuses both on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and author Carl Sandburg. Stevens showcases sheer delight when he and his fellow Illinoise makers sing, "Chicago, in fashion, the soft drinks, expansion, oh Columbia! From Paris, incentive, like Cream of Wheat invented, the Ferris Wheel!" The whole of Illinoise plays out like some cleverly written community theatre performance.
Likewise, the goal of Illinoise is not to be a pretentious or even banal compendium of well revered historical and cultural references. It broadcasts the colorful echos of time, places and events that mingle and intertwine ever meaningfully with the present. Sufjan Stevens celebrates both the well-revered and the relatively unknown figures or forgotten moments that shaped lives. Gleaming with equal importance they scintillate in the kaleidoscope that is the state of Illinois. The only pretense about Illinoise are the excessive length of the titles, i.e. the 52 words of "The Black Hawk War...". This is irrelevant though to the overall cause of the album.
The grooves of this record are highly infectious. From the spirited banjo picking on "Decatur," or, "Round of Applause For Your Step Mother" to the haunting melody of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." the listener is easily captivated by the depth and attention to detail that pours out of Sujfan Stevens. He is not intimidated at placing humor in his songs either. For instance with "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors...", which is a tribute to the classic film Night of the Living Dead, he sings in an almost chant-like fashion, "Logan, Grant and Ronald Reagan, In the grave with Xylophagan, Do you know the ghost community? Sound the horn, address the city."
The more joyous tracks are balanced by the heartfelt and bittersweet stories of "Chicago," "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!" and "Casimir Pulaski Day" which use the location or event or a vehicle as a backdrop for his coping with loss of a close friend (Palisades) or praying for a friend struggling with cancer (Casimir Pulaski Day). These songs have such cinematic appeal: the string quartet, the wurlitzer keyboard and chorus of Illinoisemakers conjure up the quickly passing landscape as the author travels to Chicago then to New York. There is the instrumental break in "Palisades" where the deluge of various recorders summons a change in direction. The music shifts direction like scenes in a movie that slowly reveal hidden truths about its character.
Sufjan Steven's lyrics are also permeated with religious imagery. Like Leonard Cohen Stevens wields questions regarding faith and/or prayers for guidance or deliverance in his lyrics. This adds yet another layer to the already powerful and incisive songs. The closing number of Illinoise is "Out of Egypt" which evokes Matthew 2:15, "Out of Egypt I called my son." The Phillip Glass simplicity and minimalism underlies the emotional weight of the rising tide of the string quartet and recorders. The listener is lifted out of Illinois and into the stratosphere.
Somehow all the songs and their characters with their stories and lives congeal into one celestial motif. Or suggestion.
The last words uttered on the record which precede "Egypt" are the artist calling out to the audience, asking for a contribution, to make your own quest as he had done with Illinoise. He implores:
"Celebrate the few. Celebrate the new. It can only start with you."
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 14 October 14, 2005