My thoughts on Bestival 2016

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What would be your response to seeing the Chuckle Brothers playing the main stage of a major music festival? Given the crowd’s rapturous response to their seasoned shambolics (complete with Barry miming on the drums), it was a mix of triumph and humored bemusement. This was my second time at Bestival which, ever eclectic, had proposed a “future” theme.  Admittedly the brothers were early on in the day, but the heart-warming nostalgia guaranteed by a set chock full of “to me, to you” and “no slacking” was almost at loggerheads with this.

Oh dear oh dear, you might think. But actually, among a sea of futuristic artwork, glossy spaced-out costumes and (perhaps most importantly) a whole host of new talent, the odd dot of reminiscence in the form of legendary performers- be they acclaimed artists or the silliest of children’s entertainers- was much needed. Heck, 2016 has been a tough year, particularly in popular culture; we need a slice of sentimentality every now and then- not just to remind us of what has been, but of what can be done.

Despite me and James getting there quite late on Friday, we were still able to find space for our tent without having to walk too far into the festival. However, if you go down with more than one after the first day… well, I crave your confidence, your optimistic outlook on the ways of music festivals. Forcing ourselves to set things up properly rather than just dash off to enjoy the music was probably the toughest part of the whole weekend, even more than packing everything up on Sunday morning in the early, hungover stages of a post festival comedown. AND it was a pop up tent.

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Bestival, Chuckle style.

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Bestival and chill.

Maybe my regular attendance of Glastonbury has warped my expectations of other festivals, but the main stage certainly seemed small. For reference, it was on par with the Park stage at the aforementioned Somerset series, and it was much smaller than the main stage at, say, Reading or Leeds. In a way though, you can argue that this puts it on more level footing with the other stages of the festival; that it is on par with the rest, rather than trying to stand out.

Delays on entering the festival meant that we missed Skepta, much to my annoyance and James’s jubilation, but Major Lazer were satisfying Friday night headliners. From the first bounce of “Pon De Floor”, we were treated to all manner of shapes and speeds; even gimmicks like Diplo zorbing across the crowd were enjoyable enough. The only big let-down was the short, acoustic version of “Cold Water,” courtesy of MO, who had played the Big Top earlier. As one of the late contenders for summer anthem, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

After enduring the rain for Chuckle Brothers,  me and James escaped Saturday’s awful weather with a few hours in the Big Top; this is Bestival’s second stage, so more musical tricks than circus treats. My highlight was Beaty Heart, one of the first band’s I’ve heard who truly consider the texture of their innovative electropop, with “Flora” prompting swathes of slow grooves across the tent. Then the rain faded away for Craig David, his comeback continuing to catapult him further into our consciousness with his lively, pure feel-good R’n’B. Another mix of past and future that you can’t explain, but it works.

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The Cure’s Bestival set: “Just Like Heaven,” you may well say.

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The People’s Front Room, Bestival’s best kept secret.

Now, some bands yearn to make their festival slot a special occasion in some way, such as celebrating an album anniversary by playing it from start to finish. Instead, The Cure embraced the best of their back catalog- nearly three hours of it in fact- and delivered a spectacular set that took in all corners of alternative, from psych to disco to indie and back again. From the impassioned jangle pop of “Friday I’m In Love” to the sludgy bass intro of “Just Like Heaven” sending up wistful cheers, the highlights were predictable, but no less enjoyable for being so.

Sunday meanwhile, in the grand festival tradition, was a bit of a blur. Me and James spent lots of it exploring the less-trodden western corners of the festival, wandering through the Ambient Forest to the top of the site to take it all in. Pick of the day had to go to Will Varley on the Magic Meadow’s Invaders of the Future stage. It was a slightly difficult set in a sense because of its close proximity to the main stage, but Varley’s folk was equally rowdy and enthusiastic, doing very well in keeping the crowd with him throughout.

Coming back on the ferry late that evening, drifting in and out of sleep and reveling in the foul-language nostalgia of Teesside Tintin, I reflected that Bestival does feel a bit like a holiday getaway, bowing out the summer in spectacular style. Granted, it WAS slightly smaller this year (as festival organizers openly admitted on social media afterwards), but the festival still felt like it was giving its all throughout. Although I will admit there was a particular hideaway that underlined most of the fun across the weekend: The People’s Front Room.

Fashioned as an otherworldly nineteenth century salon, this tucked-away gem offers a heap of talent across funk, jazz, and all manner of genres for that matter, to be enjoyed from one of the plush armchairs or the Persian-style carpets. Leave your wellies at the door and immerse yourself. Being so close to the artist, it offers an unparalleled level of intimacy- despite the venue doubling in size since last year’s Bestival. It’s easily my favourite find from the fields. For me, festivals are about the hidden delights you stumble into; maybe Bestival is right in pointing to the future, to see what you come across next.

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My first time at the Proms

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A man reaches for a Tupperware of grapes during the interval, as the smell of wine hangs thick in the air. It’s my first time at the Proms- officially as a “Prommer” too- and of all the concerts, gigs, live events that I’ve been to, this is one in particular that is unavoidably informed by the atmosphere. Of course, classical music can be enjoyed anywhere- and maybe likening it to the grandiose architecture of tonight’s venue plays into a certain snooty stereotype – but the ambiance of the Royal Albert Hall really lends to the feeling of the Proms as an occasion, one to celebrate.

And yet, here I am with my flatmate Gavin for the cost of seven pounds. Yes we’re technically standing (though many choose to sit down even during the recitals), but in terms of encouraging people from all backgrounds to experience classical music, the cheap price of the tickets is really promising. There was no queuing for hours either- this is the first year the Proms have started selling these tickets online, on the day of the prom itself. Granted, you can only buy one each, but if you organise it in advance it’s a relatively straightforward process; you really haven’t got an excuse not to give it a go.

The main difference here is that Gavin really knows his classical; he was so determined to hear two of the pieces at this particular prom that he was originally planning to go by himself until I jumped at the chance. I really enjoy classical, but I suffer from a naivety about the different composers, pieces and periods. Sure, I could throw a handful of names at you, but I wouldn’t feel confident debating it. However, your own experience can surprise you at times, and I was happy to find I actually knew the first piece on the bill, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero;” I just wasn’t aware of its name. Gavin wasn’t a huge fan of its repetitive nature, but I liked the way it built with the number of instruments throughout.

After this came Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor,” an early twentieth century composition with the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging of its kind. As the grand piano was wheeled out, Gavin was craning to see who would be rising to the challenge, and was taken aback by the youthful appearance of Behzod Abduraimov. For such a complex composition, it soared and shimmered throughout its forty two minutes, with an abundance of keys giving the effect of a waterfall. Only the back of Abduraimov’s shirt at the end betrayed how difficult it must have been; the fact he returned for an encore was even more commendable.

Neither of us were aware of Ustvolskaya’s third symphony “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!” but given the uplifting nature of the previous two pieces, it bought a curtain of melancholy that felt out of place; sometimes formidable, sometimes sombre, never really welcomed.  It was intriguing, but fell to Rachmaninov’s shadow. But the fourth! It was a suite from Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” which revived the merrier mood that had started the night. The melodies swelled and dived at such a pace, accelerating up to the gallery before crashing down again, without ever jerking out of place, that it all flowed rather beautifully.

Somehow, I had not comprehended the notion of an encore at the Proms, but after some frenzied foot stomping from the concertgoers, we were treated to two additional pieces. The first neither of us knew, but the second was an unexpected treat that again I knew by ear and not by name- Bach’s “Air on a G String.” Seeing as I have been trying to find the name of this for quite a while, I was rather chuffed to be able to experience it. For me, it’s always felt like a piece of reflection, a time to consider the events that have just occurred. Somehow I got caught up in the notion of an aftermath of a furious battle; quite a contrast to the gentle, contemplative ending it provided to a fine, varied evening of music.

The main thing that I took away from my first night at the Proms is that, because of a lack of lyrics (well, mostly), classical music is something you feel- there were plenty around us, sitting or standing, with their eyes closed as in meditation, just letting the music flow through them. It provokes such a wide range of emotions, that if you’ve not given it a chance before, I reckon you’ll be surprised. After all, movements, keys and composers are just names- the most basic instinct is whether you enjoy it. I can honestly say, as a Prommer, there’s nothing like it.

My belated Glastonbury 2016 review

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Here’s an important question that needs to be answered: how long can you keep talking about Glastonbury after the event has been and passed? It’s an issue as thought-provoking as how long it is reasonably acceptable to keep your wristband on after the event, considering all the mud you embrace during your five days on the farm. But hey, leaving it a few weeks gives you plenty of time to reflect (plus life’s been pretty manic recently), so here are some of my thoughts on this year’s action on Worthy Farm…

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Who would have thought that London to Glastonbury would take 10 hours? No crazy detours either- our coach troupe set off at half 1 on Wednesday,  and we were just over 4 miles away by half 4. Fast forward three hours and we were only a mile closer. In the end, it was just before midnight that we reached the campsite having abandoned the coach just before 10 with three miles to go. This was my 3rd year at Glastonbury, and the queuing has never been as bad as this.

The only thing worse was the mud. The draining, soul-destroying mud. It doubled the length of every journey across the site, and made it impossible to sit down anywhere, meaning there were deep staring battles for chairs and the one patch of grass left in front of the Pyramid. Granted, it did lead to a few entertaining encounters as the luckless lost their wellies in the mud- followed by admirable demonstrations of camaraderie as we rushed in to help, embracing the true festival spirit. But even so, it was a relief to get back on solid ground once the weekend was over.

Why do I start on such negatives? Well, despite the queues, mud, and queues IN mud, Glastonbury still remains the highlight of my year, unchallenged in its celebration of contemporary music and art. Maybe it’s the sheer variety of bands, comedians and artists on offer that keeps me coming back; maybe it’s the sprawling variety of areas that after three years in a row I have still yet to explore entirely. Or maybe now it’s become a post-university tradition that nostalgia forbids me to break. In any case, Glastonbury amazed and delighted in equal measure once again.

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For musical highlights, there were plenty of well-chosen last minute decisions, such as the Syrian Orchestra, first on the Pyramid on Friday morning, with Damon Albarn leading a brilliant cover of Blur’s “Out Of Time”. Also on The Hell Stage at 2am on Sunday morning, we decided on The Apples, an Israeli funk nine piece who finished with a rousing cover of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of.” Unexpected surprises such as Gentleman’s Dub Club in the Glade, and firm favourites exceeding expectations (Ezra Furman and The Last Shadow Puppets I’m looking at you)… too many bands to name!

However, I do have to mention my headliners. Firstly, Underworld on West Holts were the perfect frenzy for a Friday, an explosion of dance and light that set a commendable pace for the days ahead. I saw them at BBC 6 Music Festival earlier this year, but far from dissuading me that I had already experienced this set it only encouraged me to return. Then, Adele on Saturday was an unforeseen joy- or at least, I thought I would enjoy it, but I was surprised by just how much I did. It was just the right mix of banter to lift your spirits from the emotional depths that her songs plunged to.

Finally, we had LCD Soundsystem on The Other Stage, bringing us down with the curtain call. I knew this would be the one band I would kick myself the most for missing. It wasn’t just the gaiety of their sharp electronic rock; it was in the way James Murphy and his band performed that made it such an enjoyable experience.  From the pounding chants of “Us V Them,” the dance-punk ferocity of “Losing My Edge” to the final number of “All My Friends,” the piano chords refusing to relent, I felt suitably satisfied at the set and only just missing my friends in a few fields away, most of which opted for Earth, Wind & Fire.

 

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Overall, Saturday night was the maddest of the lot. Somehow, on a high after Adele finished with “Someone Like You,” several of our group made it to the fabled South East Corner, famed for its late night mind boggling madness. Shangri La in particular spins popular culture and the role of the media on its head; the twists to convention enveloping you, particularly after a few bevvies. It was here we saw The Apples, along with Dub Pistols and a DJ set from Mark Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, before I conceded defeat and made my way home along the railway line (which, I hasten to add, is covered over).

However, halfway along to home, I realized sunrise was just around the corner (or in this case, just over the horizon), and I was caught up with a few other enthusiastic night owls who were making their way to the Stone Circle at the top of the festival site. We arrived to a chorus of drums, percussion and otherworldly chants as the first rays leapt over the horizon. It was a site to behold, a new day at the festival… and then it was half five, and I realised how  truly tired I was, and I struggled back to camp. Even at six, as I finally got into my tent, there was still so much going on, refusing to give in to tiredness.

Glastonbury is full of experiences like that- maybe not all quite so draining- and even waking up late on Friday morning to the news we were leaving the EU did little to affect the festival spirit. Sure, it was mentioned plenty of times- Damon Albarn strolled onto the Pyramid stage a few hours after the result, and proclaimed “reasons to be cheerful? It’s not raining!” But Worthy Farm is one of those places you stride into, and suddenly all of your problems and woes ebb out of you. All I can say is, if you think the Pyramid looks one heck of a site on the telly, just wait till you glimpse it in the Somerset fields.

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Taking apart the Reading & Leeds 2016 headliners

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Legends of live music or rite of passage for school leavers, monumental in rock history or trying too hard to cover all bases; there are all kinds of views to be found on Reading and Leeds, and as one of the UK’s major festivals it’s likely that most music fans will have one. Reading was my first festival, back in 2011 as A Levels faded into oblivion and the prospect of abandoning the south for University in Liverpool drew closer and closer. And you know what? As an entry level first time festival, it was a lot of fun.

I fell in love with Big Deal and Little Comets in the cramped corner of the Festival Republic stage, and was blown away by the sheer force of Crystal Castles in the NME tent. The Strokes were pretty good, even if Julian Casablancas sang with the air of someone who’s been dragged along to their own birthday party, and Muse played Origins of Symmetry in full to a crowd of mostly bemused students whom the magic was lost on. I see the appeal of toasting albums when headlining festivals, but it just wasn’t the right audience. It wasn’t till Plug In Baby that the crowd fully went for it.

Anyway, I’m dwindling in festival nostalgia territory here, but it’s worth noting that this was the Reading when the only hint of anything other than rock was the Dance Stage on Friday. Now it’s a gigantic behemoth that tries to cover all bases in a Glastonbury-type manner. Glastonbury gets away with it because it IS Glastonbury, but Reading and Leeds’s attempt to become the festival of all trades means it often spreads itself too thin. Bear that in mind as the headliner debate unravels.

I’m going to go through the festival headliners day by day and offer my thoughts accordingly:

 

Friday: Foals and Disclosure

Both of these acts, for me, are a no brainer. Foals’ frenetic, draining live performances have always been destined to steer them to the top of festival bills, and they’ve already proven they’re capable of it, having headlined Latitude back in 2013. What Went Down, while not their strongest album, certainly channels the more ferocious elements of their previous efforts, and will work wonders on the Main Stage.

Similarly, while Disclosure’s second effort Caracal might not have had the same impact as Settle, they certainly have enough tunes in their arsenal to make for a memorable set to finish Friday off. And just think of the number of guest vocalists across their releases! There’s bound to be a few surprises along the way. More than anything, the duo’s style highlights the festival’s desire to expand the sound of the two sites, a trend which can only be healthy for the festival community as a whole.

 

Saturday: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Maybe it’s just me, but having spent my early teenage years basking in the glow of Stadium Arcadium, the follow up I’m With You just didn’t make the same impact. It took five years for that to be released, and five more have passed since then. I’m not disputing their legacy for one moment- one listen of Blood Sex Sugar Magik would dissuade me from ever doing so- all I’m asking is, just what do the Chilis mean in 2016?

Having said that, they also tick a lot of boxes to be headline material at Reading and Leeds; they’ve clocked up enough years to know how to carry a crowd, and they’ve enough hits to pack their slot fit to burst. Finally, maybe my adolescent adoration of Stadium Arcadium is getting to me, but I would argue they also carry enough nostalgia for many music fans to build up the crowd’s endearment as the night goes on.

 

Sunday: Biffy Clyro and Fall Out Boy

Writing this next one is going to be tough. I’ll get Fall Out Boy out of the way first: as much as I wasn’t that fussed about American Beauty/ American Psycho, it was another solid effort from a band who have had an incredibly successful comeback. Their early pop punk gems combined with their new pop rock singles will make for a winning set.

Now, I love Biffy Clyro. They gave me imagination for feeling young, and I still can’t decide whether I think Puzzle or Infinity Land is their best album. 2013’s Opposites had several stellar tracks that were full on alternative anthems, but stripped of the math-rock and post-hardcore tinges that characterised their early releases, it was probably their safest album to date. Yet its success made them all the more capable of stepping up to headline Reading and Leeds.

Three years later, the Biffs are headlining again, and I wonder if enough has happened to warrant them doing so. We’ve been told April or May is when to expect their latest effort, but even if the goods are delivered on time, is that enough time to let the record fully sink in? Hordes of Glasto-goers have criticised the decision to put Coldplay on top for the fourth time, but five years feels more like a suitable gap, and at least they’ve had two albums out in between.

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Overall, I want more of Friday night. There are countless bands that made a mark in 2015 that deserve to be given a shot at headlining status; funnily enough, Latitude, the first to give Foals headliner status, has done the same this year with The Maccabees. More festivals should be following their lead and give new timers a chance to make their debut- we don’t want to be ten years down the line with a serious drought of main stage closers. Or maybe Reading and Leeds will just try and knock us with six in 2017?

Let All The Children Boogie.

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In my mid-teens I made a short lived venture into amateur musical theatre, starting with a seventies’ jukebox musical called Disco Inferno. While I flitted between small roles as an announcer and a priest, I looked on as the lead attempted to blow our minds with a cover of “Starman.” That was my first experience of Bowie: a tribute, although admittedly by someone with a perfectly capable voice, but nothing like the real thing. After rehearsals I dug out The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars just to listen to that track, but by the end of that Thursday night I had listened to the whole thing from start to finish.

The weekend came and I was engrossed in Hunky Dory and Heroes, and was doing my best to learn “Starman” on guitar. Years later I was interning at the Liverpool music magazine Bido Lito!, and I remember scouring gig listings for new additions while Ziggy Stardust soundtracked our afternoon. Bowie had suddenly re-emerged a few weeks before at the start of 2013, banishing firmly anchored rumours of retirement, and music suddenly felt a lot more exciting. Just this weekend I was devouring Blackstar, rejoicing in the sheer versatility of its experimental jazz. And now it’s Monday, and he’s gone. Just like that.

It might seem a tad trivial for a tribute to commence with a few anecdotes, especially as I’ve only really been into Bowie for the last seven or eight years, but this morning’s news was surprisingly upsetting, considering that I never knew him in person. I guess it was even more shocking because we’re still reeling from the impact of Blackstar, and on listening to it again Bowie suddenly sounds even more fragile than I previously registered. For a record so intricately produced, it still exhibits a carefree nature, of not having to satisfy anyone but itself; a trump card for creativity, if anything.

But I wanted to share a handful of memories, like so many others are doing, because those details which have such a huge influence on our mind-set, our happiness, and our lives overall, are often taken for granted. “There’s a star man waiting in the sky,” Bowie first sang many years ago. “He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” To say he did just that doesn’t quite do him justice; really, all you have to do is listen to his music. He was the man who fell to earth, gave us a gaggle of dazzling colourful characters, and highlighted the importance of creativity and integrity. More than anything, he showed us just what we are truly capable of.

“And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people,
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people,
I never thought I’d need so many people.”

David Bowie

1947-2016

The Tenth Blog Of Christmas: Thank You For The Music

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“Good King Wenceslas” will always hold a special place in my heart, for in 2003, on the 150th anniversary of the carol’s creation, I sung the carol outside Sackville College in front of the British media. I thought I did a good solo job, and the hundreds of other schoolchildren taking part did well too, taking particular glee in being able to say the word “sod” on national television.

Sackville College, a Jacobean alms-house, had its moment in Christmas music history cemented by one of its wardens the Reverend Dr John Mason Neale. He was a prominent hymn writer, with Good King Wenceslas among his compositions. Whenever I get home for Christmas, I inevitably meander through town admiring the lights, emerging at the top of the High Street to behold the College, and though it may look a little barren in the winter, the spirit of the carol still rouses me.

Asides from the small matter of the nativity, Christmas carols define the crib service at my local church St Swithuns, and with the place packed to the rafters each year, the crooning glides along the robust organ notes to create an ethereal atmosphere. I know carols aren’t for everyone, particularly if you’re not part of a Christian denomination,  but there’s still plenty of festive music to immerse yourself in.

Then there’s the onslaught from the world of retail. Your local supermarket will be slipping the odd “Last Christmas” and “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” by the end of November, before launching a full festive playlist in the last few weeks before the big day (no doubt I’ve noticed this more due to my experience of working in one), and any festive event will have Slade, Wizzard and The Pogues regularly playing out.

But asides from the classics, there are numerous covers and rarities. My godfather’s brother notably has a festive playlist on Spotify with 1001 Christmas songs, sprawling across every genre imaginable, and he makes a new festive compilation every year; my highlight was Earth Wind And Fire reworking one of their classics into “December.” I myself enjoy new discoveries too-  Andy Williams “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of Year” has been a notable addition to this year’s playlist.

With my house being particular appreciative in all kinds of music, Christmas music has always played a big part in defining the period. Yes, many are as corny and cliché as they come, but they also evoke such strong nostalgia of past Christmases and get my family all singing along to their favourites that I can never discredit it. Me and my Dad are always in charge of music at our Christmas Eve party, and I would be a fool if I said I didn’t immensely enjoy organizing it.

Also, let’s make this clear- I don’t listen to any Christmas music before December for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if it’s overplayed then you’re only going to remove that special feeling of festive cheer you associate with it, and like anything you indulge too much in, it’s only going to annoy you after a while. Even I find my ears grating at the thought of listening to another slow-jam cover of Merry Christmas Everybody- sure, the original has its charms, but the endless covers you hear never quite match up.

As a genre, there’s no denying that Christmas music will always be a guilty pleasure. However, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t underline the power that certain festive tunes have to remind me of home and comfort wherever I am in the world. Lord knows I can’t remember where I first heard “Fairytale of New York” or “I Believe In Father Christmas”; it was probably just at a Christmas party or the big day itself. But it’s how it’s become a staple over time that shows its true importance.

“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.