It’s been almost a decade since Sufjan Stevens invited us to “Come on feel the Illinoise,” and I’m still feeling it. In fact, I’ve yet to find a more vivid and poignant album than Illinois. Spilling from Stevens’ fervent symphonic masterpiece are stream-of-consciousness song titles, Part Ones that blur dreamily into their Part Twos, and nostalgia for a place you’ve never been. To categorize it simply as indie folk is almost a crime, and I don’t know if it even has a genre. This is what you listen to if you want to go somewhere.
With cascading interludes like “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!’”, Illinois almost takes pride in sounding labored. But it’s a labor of love, like a community play in a hard-working Midwestern town. This feeling is emphasized in tracks like “Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell,” and the truly magnificent “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream).”
Many songs seem to reflect the kind of experiences that make a splash in small town newspapers, like the exquisitely somber opening track “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” and “Prairie Fire That Wanders About.” Stevens also takes on a startlingly poetic account of the famed Chicago serial killer and child rapist in “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” with plain, yet chilling, lyrics like “They were boys / with their cars / summer jobs / oh my God.”
Tracks like “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons” are simple thrills, and almost evoke the feeling of eavesdropping on your neighbor’s gossip. Having spent most of my summers in a small town in Illinois, home-cooked treats like “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” feel stunningly authentic.
In this perfect depiction of rural life, Stevens also captures the mystery of the big city. “Chicago” is bold and exciting, as is “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” a stirring hymn for Superman. In contrast, “The Seer’s Tower” is as lonesome as concrete and glass can be.
“Casimir Pulaski Day,” a softly-sung story of bone cancer, is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Stevens confronts religion with honest updates like “Tuesday night at the Bible study / We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens,” and his frustration at God for how “He takes, and He takes, and He takes.”
Perhaps the most captivating thing about Illinois is how nothing is ever what you expect it to be. “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament,” has the title of a farmer’s journal entry, but the mystical pull of a Saint-Saens piece. If the song, “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” sounds like it would be frantic, then you’re in for another surprise.