Verdict – 9.3
The fifth album by indie folk artist Sufjan Stevens was the second album apart of his planned (albeit a gag) Fifty States Project, following on from his album Michigan. A concept album, referencing places, people and events regarding the state of Illinois. The album is a sprawling homage to the state, the songs intimate, lush, yet at the same time, busy, explosive and bustling. Stevens manages to tell narratives through strong lyrics, and for the lengthy album, manages to hold your attention alarmingly well. At first listen, the songs seem similar, with a large majority being acoustic folk songs with his hushed voice leading, but really when you listen properly, all songs are very varied, and this in itself is an accomplishment.
The songs themselves, are laced with amazing detail, and listeners familiar with Illinois will find much to appreciate. The sombre John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is about the Illinois serial killer and rapist, and is told with very thoroughly researched facts. Alongside hushed guitar and piano, Stevens speaks about Gacy’s upbringing and actions, before finally singing over toned down instruments, “in my best behaviour, I am really just like him.” On Decatur, his rhyming is noteworthy and impressive to say the least, using ‘alligator, aviator, emancipator’ amongst others. Album centrepiece and the best track, Chicago, is the most anthemic song on Illinois, a song about idealism, and the fascination of what you’ve yet to experience. Using New York as the example, Stevens sings, “I was in love with the place, in my mind… I made a lot of mistakes.” Everything is not how you always imagine them to be, and maybe things were better in the past. Following that is other album standout Casimir Pulaski Day, the most honest song on the album. Over banjo and guitar, Stevens sings about loss, as a girl falls victim to bone cancer. The song is beautiful, and utilises his tender voice. Christianity has always been a theme amongst his songs, but this is a song which shows his beliefs better than ever. A believer yes, but frustration and confusion are evident, as he closes with, “He took my shoulders, and He shook my face, and He takes and He takes and He takes.”
Larger albums I feel, usually tend to suffer from its length. Usually albums of Illinois’s length have multiple weak tracks that result in the album becoming significantly weaker than it should be, however in this case, the tracks are all relevant and add to the album. The tiny skit-like instrumentals are appropriate, and the full instrumentals are just as impressive. Instruments and singing are on centre stage on the album, and the album itself is just a sprawling, messy, touching ode to Illinois. But in a good way. Illinois is stunning.
Top Songs – John Wayne Gacy, Jr. , Chicago, Casimir Pulaski Day