Despite not recording on a load of fancy equipment (he mainly used the good-old Shure SM-57 on most instruments) nor having the benefit of a defined recording space (Illinois was recorded in several different locations and at different times over the course of four months), Sufjan Stevens has once again created another brilliant album with his second entry in his great states project. The full title of the release is Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Come On Feel The Illinoise, and like his previous Michigan the long title of the album (nor the epic song titles) don't feel overstated at all. After that last release, I told a friend that Stevens was easily one of my favorite singer/songwriters under the age of 30, but given his output over the course of the past couple years, I can state the above without giving any sort of age qualification. Stevens is simply one of the most talented artists creating music right now, period.
There's sure to be a critical backlash at some point, but you won't even begin hear it from me yet. Despite another staggering number of songs (twenty two) and album running length (almost seventy-five minutes), Stevens has carved out another solid set of tracks that probably have even more depth and scope than anything he's done before. While he's always been known for his adventurous instrumentation, he goes even further on Illinois, hanging up guitars in large part in favor of horns, chromatic instruments (chimes, bells, piano), and woodwinds. The result is a release that feels like the work of Stevens while also moving in completely new directions.
The first four tracks on the release give a perfect idea of the overall scope of the release, veeing wildly from the quiet and building flutes/piano of "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" to the horns/flute/vocal fanfare of "The Black Hawk War..." As if those weren't enough, the two part titled track of "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!" might very well be one of the best tracks that Stevens has ever done (and that's saying a lot). After opening with a Vince Guaraldi-esque piano tickle, horns burst forth with a hearty rhythm section, bells, vocals from Stevens and a backup chorus as the track progresses from a bright ode to the Chicago's Worlds Fair to a more introspective and reflective second half (with one of the most inventive in-track shifts since Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out").
"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." tackles one of the more infamous serial killers in the history of the United States, and Stevens turns in a sparse vocal track that's empathetic without being crass and contains one of the most heartbreaking vocal melodies I've heard in some time. From there, the album keeps jumping around, from the banjo and string driven "Jacksonville" to the epic and grandiose "Chicago," which moves between quiet electric piano to orchestral and choral flourishes that sweep you up like like the embodiment of the city itself.
As with Michigan, Stevens filters the history of the state through a very personal point-of-view. He touches on things on everything from nationally-known landmarks like the Sears Tower (which becomes the "Seer's Tower" in a haunting, windswept piece) to more obscure figures on "Casimir Pulaski Day" (in which he weaves a very personal narrative for one of the more emotionally-touching tracks on the release). "The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" is the only track on the entire album that is electric-guitar driven, yet coming halfway through the album, the alternately loud and quiet anthem feels just about right as a step in the journey.
On first listen, the sheer variety of musical styles feels a bit overwhelming at times, and some of the short interludes seem a bit haphazard as well. Yet, despite the inclusion of "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!" (which sounds like pure David Axelrod orchestral-funk) and album closer "Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind..." (which channels the work of Steve Reich with some soft phasing patterns), the album reveals itself after several listens as another rewarding, personal listen from Stevens. After all, Illinois itself has the unique contradiction of laying smack dab in the middle of the United States, yet also teems with one of the most metropolitan cities in the country. In a single state, blue collar mixes with white collar while great plains find themselves swallowed up by sprawling suburbs and huge steel and glass skyscrapers with burned-out housing projects sitting in their shadows. If those things don't call for a varied musical response, I don't know what does, and with the quality of his first two releases in the series, I can only hope that Stevens continues with his adventurous and overwhelming musical project.