Illinois – Sufjan Stevens
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Illinois is the second effort in Sufjan Steven’s 50 States Project which began with 2003’s Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State. While it might be profound to embark on such an undertaking, and while his observations of Illinois are dead-on (from the goat that cursed the Cubs to the Sears Tower to the biographical sketches of Lincoln and poet Carl Sandburg) the concept seems a bit kitschy, a bit too gimmicky in light of the lush musical landscape he is capable of producing. It’s a nifty idea, but so secondary to his innovation as a musician. It’s sort of like an all you can eat tuna tar tar and foie gras bar.
That said, Illinois is a deep, far-reaching album about reconciling our plight as humans, our mistakes, our mortality and our emotions with the notion of a greater good, or in some cases, a greater God.
In "Casimir Pulaski Day," Stevens sings of a beloved friend who passes away from bone cancer. He sings of a prayer group intent on reviving the dying friend, and concludes the song with a vision of God he sees in her hospital bedroom window on the morning of her passing. The meaning of this vision is bittersweet. Stevens sings, "All the glory that the Lord has made and the complications when I see his face in the morning in the window/All the glory when he took our place but he took my shoulders and he shook my face and he takes and he takes and he takes."
The song's title recalls the day, March 4th, on which the Polish revolutionary and hero of the American Revolution, Casimir Pulaski, is memorialized, and coincidentally, it is three days after the day on which the woman in the song passes away. There is an implied meaning in the passing of the loved one, and the remembrance of someone whose life was dedicated to the pursuit of freedom: essentially that the God about which Stevens sings works in connected but inexplicable ways. Incidentally, and slightly less relevant, the song stays true to the theme of the album: Chicago has the second largest population of Polish people next to Warsaw.
The album's opener, "Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, IL" begins with haunting, repetitive piano chords and soon the faintest flutes add a sense of hopeful foreboding. This paradox is apparent in almost every song in some way: in "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." it is the humble guitar and piano interplay under the freakish lyrics about the sadistic serial killer and Chicago native, Gacy; in "To the Workers of the Rockford River Valley Region…" it is the somber solo trumpet transparent over the dreamscape of vibraphone, piano and cymbals; in "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!..." it is the funky bass line overshadowed by sorrowful violin riffs.
Steven's Illinois is a brilliant combination of state history, societal and cultural observations, emotion and spirituality. It is a 22 track behemoth, worthy of multiple, critical listens. A discerning listener will find a cornucopia of meaning to be drawn from each composition.
In essence, what Illinois encapsulates is the life struggle of the residents of Illinois, of America, and of the human race. On the concluding track, "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind…" controlled chaos prevails. The piano and hum of vibraphone, strings, oboe and flute evoke the central ideology of the album as a whole; namely that our plight as humans might simply be a great laugh, or at best, a planned but clumsy collision of our own aspirations and the path which a greater being has designed for us.