“Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens; a modern classic, ten years on

My battered yet beloved copy

My battered yet beloved copy

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Some music enthusiasts can pull their favourite artist and album out of thin air with astonishing confidence; the epiphany of the first time listen, the fervor that swelled within their heart, what each track truly means to them. I can now count myself one of those lucky few, though the question used to make me break out in a cold sweat, until a sudden moment of clarity earlier this year… Sufjan Stevens, the multi-instrumentalist maestro who makes masterpieces of every genre he delves into. He has to be my choice, and his stunning fifth album Illinois (or “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise” if you will) is my all-time favourite album.

I was shocked to realize that today, the album is ten years old; although this is hardly surprising for me, given I have only known the album for five of those years. A faux-goth on the cusp of my teenagers, I was not caught in the firing line of over-exuberant critics that hailed Illinois; instead, it was early 2010, several months before the release of Steven’s follow up, Age Of Adz, listening to the album’s title track that my curiosity with Sufjan Stevens began.

With nothing else from Age of Adz on offer, I ventured into Stevens’ back catalogue, and of course the first result was “Chicago”, still his most prominent song thanks to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack and a fantastic gateway to the rest of Illinois. I was eager to get my own copy of the album, and amazingly my lucky streak continued; as your average small town, East Grinstead is not regarded as a haven for physical music, and the only option for finding CDs was scouring the pre-owned collections in the various charity shops. Yet as I casually browsed my local British Heart Foundation that week, there it was. Without a doubt, it’s still the best £2 I’ve ever spent.

A whimsical anecdote might not seem like the best way to open a celebration of a modern masterpiece, but I felt my own introduction to the album was the best way to kick things off, given Sufjan Stevens’ fascination with and considerable talent at crafting stories through his songs. The second release in his Fifty States Project- and given that it has now been ten years and a third hasn’t surfaced, probably his last – Stevens uses the state as a backdrop for exploring his own personal anecdotes.

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne... there's something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne… there’s something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Regardless of the cities (“Chicago”), superheroes (“The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”) and, ahem, its serial killers (“John Wayne Gacy Jr.”), his songs only have a location through dashes of setting; give them a name, and really you could place them anywhere. That’s not to say Illinois is tacked on as an afterthought though; Sufjans actually heavily researched the state, reading around the subject and even going on road trips to broaden his own perspective. But it’s the strength of the narrative, a double assault with the richness of the melodies, which have the most effect; you feel his words could be lifted from works of literature.

But don’t mistake this as Stevens being pompous or patronising; it’s more that Stevens attempts to create as striking a picture as possible, to make stories rather than just songs. Take “Casimir Pulaski Day”, for example, and its opening line: “Goldenrod and the 4H stone; the things I brought you, when I found out you had cancer of the bone.” Considering it’s just Stevens and a guitar that opens the track, the bleakness of that line still leaves your emotions winded. On a day of celebration for many, Stevens finds himself contemplating the loss of his teenage girlfriend, the loss of innocence… perhaps even the loss of his faith, however briefly. “We pray over your body/but nothing ever happens” reads simply, but woven into the sombre melody it is incredibly powerful in conveying Stevens’ doubt in his Lord.

All this, from just one track on the album. You could fill a dissertation on the themes that emerge throughout the album, from his encounter with Carl Sandberg on “Come On! Feel The Illinois!”, what the wasp represents in  “The Predatory Wasps of the Palisades Are Out To Get Us!” and likening himself to a serial killer on “John Wayne Gacy Jr” (a particularly prominent point that is best discussed elsewhere). You don’t find many of the messages on Illinois straightaway, but gradually with repeated listens. The record itself almost acts as a veil unto itself; it’s pleasurable as a background listen, but you have to stop and fully concentrate to understand at the signals it sends. It’s a record that’s able to think for itself, without sacrificing any emotional capacity in the process.

You might not place much importance on nationality, in terms of listening to an album, but compare my first encounter as an inquisitive Englishman in 2010 with the average American in 2005 as can be. I had none of the angst and anguish that those who were shocked by George Bush’s re-election had, nor had I the familiarity with the locales and spirit of the 11th state. Maybe the lack of context meant I had even more to wrap my head around, unravelling the essence of a far-off land that was both similar and alien at the same time… would it be surprising if that made the impact even greater?

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

It’s no understatement when I say Illinois is a truly audacious spectacle of sounds, meandering mournfully before suddenly moving into an orchestral gallop. It’s ambitious- there was so much material recorded, that Stevens had enough to release a “sequel” of sorts the following year, featuring outtakes and rearrangements, called The Avalanche–  but what’s even more impressive is that it meets its ambitions, before adding even more instruments to the fro.

A classically trained oboist, Stevens’ knowledge of the classical form is evident in the complexity of some of the time signatures and how each instrument fits into the overall track; Stevens himself played over twenty instruments on the record. Just try and imagine what that must be like to replicate live; it’s virtually impossible to come anywhere close. Because of that, the record feels even more like a unique experience that you can only truly enjoy in one medium.

When it was released in 2005, the reviews were unanimous in their praise; many publications, as wide ranging as NME, Pitchfork and even Amazon named it as one of their albums of the year (the latter two even gave it the coveted top spot). Mentions on “best of the decade” lists later followed, and even as he released his seventh album this year, the phenomenal Carrie and Lovell, the first place for comparison was always with Illinois; because for an artist that dabbles in so many genres, it is hardly surprising that a piece that combines so many has become his signature.

At twenty one tracks and nearly 74 minutes, it certainly requires commitment, but if you give it your time and it will certainly give a lot more back. Illinois is such a rich and varied release that you can easily dip in and out of, but the full experience comes from immersing yourself from start to finish. Many critics make bold claims about certain releases, but as I do not feel I am qualified enough yet to call myself one, I have no qualms in saying this: Illinois remains a triumph for the power of music ten years on, and an album with such an astonishing level of arrangement, boldness and creativity certainly deserves to be celebrated.

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