When observing the current climate of popular culture, it’s hard not to notice its parasitic qualities. From the plethora of Hollywood remakes of classic films to the latest Talking Heads and/or Velvet Underground rip-offs making the hipsters cream their collective jeans, pop culture is rife with freeloaders. With original ideas seemingly at such a premium, it’s all the more refreshing when something strikingly different crosses your path. Enter Sufjan Stevens, who in 2003 released Greetings From Michigan, the first of a proposed fifty-album project paying homage to every state in the union. Having explored his Christian faith in 2004’s Seven Swans, Stevens returns to this innovative twist on the concept album with Illinois, his fifth album as a solo artist. With this release, we see Stevens at the height of his creative powers: Drawing deeply from the state’s rich heritage, Illinois is a sprawling odyssey of an album that wonderfully showcases Stevens’s evocative songwriting skills.
In his poem “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg described the city as “Stormy, husky, brawling/ City of the big shoulders.” For his part, Stevens portrays the people of the Prairie State in a similar fashion. Anthems such as “Come On! Feel the Illinoise,” “Chicago” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” depict the Land of Lincoln as thick-skinned and determined but, ultimately, hopeful. Stevens makes a point of referencing many of the state’s iconic figures: Lincoln, Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Casimir Pulaski. One and all, they’ve left their mark on Illinois. At the same time, Stevens doesn’t turn a blind eye to the darker moments of Illinois’s history. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” recounts the sordid details of the famous serial killer’s crimes. “The Black Hawk War,” an instrumental track, is named after a particularly bloody battle between the Illinois militia and the Sauk and Fox American Indians over land rights.
Musically, Illinois is full of revelations. Most notable is Steven’s monopolization of the studio work. Although guest musicians were brought in during the recording process, Stevens took all of the recording, engineering and production duties upon himself. The result is an eclectic mix of songs, alternately triumphant and soaring or subdued and meditative. Sparing no expense with the arrangements, Stevens employs a drummer, trumpeter, a string quartet, and personally plays more than twenty different instruments on the album. He also makes strides in his vocal range, with an emerging falsetto. Backed by his Illinoisemaker Choir, the harmonies hit will give you goose bumps.
Being such a moving tribute to the state, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Illinois is that it is a labor born of careful research. Stevens, it turns out, has had little personal experience with Illinois, and it is a testament to his mounting songwriting talent that he is able to come across as utterly sincere throughout the album. Vast in scope and breathtaking in its beauty, Illinois may very well be the album that heralds Sufjan Stevens as one of this young century’s most talented artists.