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Sufjan Stevens
Illinoise

the second entry in Stevens's ambitious 50 States Project, Illinois possesses the same sagacity as his Michigan compilation, this time channeling a much more boisterous landscape compared to Michigan's sepulchral, post-industrial environs. part of it is a distance involved: though Stevens still uses the states' motley histories as a gate for his own emotional exploration, the weaker nexus between his personal experiences and the public history he outlines brings a newfound universality to his admirable endeavor. Illinois thus feels far more exploratory since both the listener and the artist are trying to comprehend the subject.

Stevens is forthright about Illinois functioning more with gears of inquiry than explication, the complicated, multi-part songs and unabridged song titles contrasting with those of Michigan. and unlike his first effort, Illinois's thematic core isn't driven by an arching mood, rather it is offered as a capsule of sorts whose contents are merely snapshots of the largest moments. granted, the same instrumental program is in place--Stevens's fascination with the banjo and his proficiency with multiple instruments still remain--his modifications manage to astutely bend a musical landscape that no doubt would have been called Michigan redux into an entirely different fore.

take a song like 'John Wayne Gacy Jr.,' one which details the life and death of one of Chicago's most infamous serial killers. with a lilting piano movement behind him and Stevens alone singing and playing an acoustic guitar, one of the album's most stirring songs isn't achieved by any summary from the artist himself, but a haunting detail of the character's life. Gacy is instead exposed for his sad contradictions and the disheartening incompleteness of his life and death. elsewhere 'The Seer's Tower' moves with a hushed piano progression, Stevens's sole performance later buttressed by a chorus whose wails portray a sense of both trepidation and awe, singing, "In the Tower above the earth/we built it for Emanuel/Oh my mother, she betrayed us/but my Father loved and bathed us/Still I go to the deepest grave/Where I go to sleep alone."

yet elsewhere, however, a magnificent triumphalism that was barely measured when he sang about Michigan roars gloriously. 'Casimir Pulaski Day,' a celebration of a Polish soldier who fought in the American Revolution under George Washington, moves with a joyous rumble courtesy of an electric guitar and choral assistance. a far more playful and powerful bass typifies 'They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!,' a booming orchestral loop combined with an ensemble choir pushing the song towards a zenith and never relenting. the moments you'd expect to be energetic and aggressive are, like on 'Jacksonville' and 'Chicago,' and are made more so by Stevens's great sense of enormity.

the album contains songs about everyone from Lincoln to Louis Armstrong, Frank Lloyd Wright to Carl Sandburg, from Andrew Jackson to Al Capone. the immersive energy involved is incredibly laudable, especially when anyone else would have been exhausted from making an album about a single state. the tales on Illinois are fleshed out and made potent because of Stevens's incredible talent of finding each one's core and orienting a song around it, offering an album that may not be emotionally cohesive, but whose songs absolutely are. you never once feel estranged, never once befuddled by the effort. you feel as though you too are from The Land of Lincoln.

Release date: July 26, 2005
Label: Phantom
Rating: 9.6 / 10

[RMR]