I first discovered Sufjan Stevens by the kind graces of an episode of The OC, during Johnny’s funeral. I wasn’t particularly sad about the passing of Johnny, but as the gang laid leis by Johnny’s surfboard-tomb, I uncannily found myself moved. The song, what was it? Once I scoured the Internet and found the name and artist (“The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti”), I was instantly enamored. Ah, that ukulele, and, what’s that now, trumpets? Who thinks of that?
At this point, my eighth grade, Abercrombie-garbed self then unearthed more and more of Sufjan Stevens’ music and was very pleased with what she found. Up until now, my musical tastes had evolved from N*Sync, to Christina Aguilera, to a very strange and long obsession with Good Charlotte. I, thankfully, found the turning point of my musical taste in Sufjan (which I soon learned, was not pronounced “Suff-jan”). Album after album had its gems, but I was particularly taken with Illinois, which had been released just the summer before this discovery. The combinations of instrumentals were foreign to my provincial ears, the titles were long and fun to memorize, and the lyrics were just so clever.
Appetite thoroughly whetted, I then took on this bear of an album. Not only is there a multitude of songs, but each song has been crafted into an elaborate, lyrical masterpiece that must be digested patiently. His striking use of unconventional time signatures, dynamics and instrumental passages is subordinate to his mastery of introducing variegated genres, instruments and textures specific to each track. Critics will claim that, musically, Sufjan is highly indebted to artists and composers as varied as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Stravinsky to Death Cab and The Cure — the latter of which he borrows a saxophone line for use in “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”
However, the adept way in which he pieces together these influences, so organically and conjunctionally with each other, is where the genius of this album truly lies. Song after song of multi-layered avant-classical compositions are carefully balanced with simple, acoustic benedictions on guitar. The truly affecting, falsetto-sung “Oh my God” in “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” instantly gave me chills. “Casmir Pulaski Day” tugged at my heartstrings with its rich banjo and “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” was one of my first ringtones. The buoyant and soothing “Decatur” (the title of which is, marvelously, rhymed with “alligator,” “aviator” and “emancipator”) features one of Sufjan’s most obliging melodies of all time. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” incorporates swirling horns and chimes while mimicking a ska ballad. He tops it off with a real string quartet to complement the contributing Chicago-based children’s choir. Purely instrumental interludes lace the album together in the forms of “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd” (shortened for sanity), the mysterious “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region” and another kind nod to string players, “Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard it All the Way Out in Bushnell.”
It wasn’t until after I devoured the music that I read up on the resplendent folklore of the album. Many of the lyrics in Illinois reference persons, places and events related to its eponymous state, paying homage to the rich culture of the American Midwest. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” documents the story of the infamous 1970s Chicago-based serial killer, an interesting tidbit I wish I had known before telling a rather demure classmate to give it a listen. However, I was distracted by the alluring piano atop beautiful pulsing guitar riffs. The haunting “Casmir Pulaski Day” is named after an Illinois holiday honoring the Polish-born victor of the Battle of Brandywine. “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” is about a UFO sighting by police officers near Highland, Illinois. “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” makes reference to the World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. “They Are Night Zombies!!” refers to various localities of Illinois with the lyrics: “B-U-D-A! Caledonia! S-E-C-O-R! Magnolia! B-I-R-D-S! And Kankakee! Evansville and Parker City.”
Sufjan must have known he was on a roll while creating this magnum opus, but reportedly did not want to appear “arrogant” in producing a double album. He instead humbly released the outtakes from this prolific time of his life in The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album, the following year. Luckily for us, Illinois does not truly end where he leaves us. Within the additional 21 tracks, he released an acoustic version of “Chicago” along with an “Adult contemporary easy listening version” of the same song, which is just that: a more mature version of the hit that came to be worn out (cough, Little Miss Sunshine). The “Multiple Personality Disorder version” of Chicago pushes the boundaries of his genre exploration even further, with vague hints of his soon-to-come electric Age of Adz.
It helps that this album truly never stops renewing itself with each listen — not only in a musical sense, but also in a literary one. It is almost as if reading a well-written novel. Allusions pop out in later listens that I did not spot initially, from Carl Sandburg to Frank Lloyd Wright. And so, listening to this album is never insipid or monotonous, in the same way that my favorite novels get better with each read. It is work of art that truly keeps on giving, so much so that other talented artists wish to breathe new life into it. Recently, just as I was straying from the path of “real” music and into the realms of house music, as if by some stroke of God, I stumbled upon a rebirth of Illinois, in the form of a mixtape by a so-called DJ. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the mastermind behind Illin-noise was none other than Donald Glover, under yet another pseudonym. By all means, listen to this chilled-out remix and let yourself relive once more the album that changed my life.