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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois


1) Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; 2) The Black Hawk War; 3)  Come On! Feel The Illinoise!; 4) John Wayne Gacy, Jr.; 5) Jacksonville; 6) A Short Re­prise For Mary Todd; 7) Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!; 8) One Last ʽWhoo-Hoo!ʼ For The Pullman!!; 9) Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!; 10) Casimir Pulaski Day; 11) To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament; 12) The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts; 13) Prairie Fire That Wanders About; 14) A Conjunction Of Drones...; 15) The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!; 16) They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!; 17) Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All The Way Out In Bushnell; 18) In This Temple As In The Hearts Of Man For Whom He Saved The Earth; 19) The Seer's Tower; 20) The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders; 21) Riffs And Variations On A Single Note For Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, And The King Of Swing, To Name A Few; 22) Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run.

General verdict: This "Illinois" is a really nice place where nothing, nothing ever happens.

Critical consensus usually regards Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise And Spend Twenty Three Years Of Your Life Trying To Memorize All The Fascinating Song Titles Jesus Helped Me To Come Up With Because As Of 2005 You Have Nothing Better Left To Do Anyway as the finest hour (more precisely, the finest hour and fifteen minutes) of the man's career, and for once, I will not presume to disagree. If we judge Sufjan by Sufjan's own schtick and nobody else's, you have to admit that this is the man's magnum opus that he will have a pretty hard time to match, let alone surpass. Which still does not make it a particularly great album: in order to make even one great album, Sufjan Stevens would have to stop being Sufjan Stevens — and become, oh, I dunno, Randy Newman, for instance.

First things first, though: like Michigan before it, this album pretends to be very tightly con­nected to the history, culture, and ambience of Chicago and other Illinois landmarks — but the connections rarely, if ever, extend beyond lyrical references (most of which will be too obscure for non-US residents anyway, and a few might not even be completely obvious to residents of Chicago itself: Sufjan did quite a bit of factual research on the history of the state while working on the songs). Musically, however, this is Sufjan territory all along, and the overall impression left by the album is as far removed from classic «Americana» as possible. I mean, musically most people would probably associate Chicago with the blues and Chess Records, but one thing Sufjan never, ever does is play the blues. The closest Stevens really gets to honoring the musical heroes of the city is with ʽRiffs And Variations On A Single Note...ʼ — fifty seconds of brass and wood­wind improvisation more or less as announced, and I am not sure whether the real Jelly Roll or Louis Armstrong would have been pleased with this.

Not that there's anything wrong with such an approach, just like you should not probably blame a priori a reggae opera about the unification of China, or a doom metal album about the creation of Tetris. All the Illinois-related themes merely create a conceptual framework to make the record seem like a variegated and comprehensive portrait of a fictional universe, loosely based on real world events and environments. The portrait itself, however, looks more like a lengthy carnival, a giddy musical ritual performed in honor of the local gods so that the flowers could grow and the water could flow. The fact that the giddiness and playfulness are occasionally interrupted by moments of sadness and even of alarm means nothing, because the steady, unnerving grip of soft, friendly tenderness and guidance is present on every single track: it is a well-known fact that Sufjan Stevens never loses his temper, even when you set his balls on fire.

Stevens is credited for about twenty different instruments on the album, many of them forming complex overdubbed patterns (often with non-standard time signatures), so this is all as sympho­nic as it ever gets in the man's history. And while many of the tracks still retain the form of a one-phrase groove, running around and around in circles as additional overdubs may or may not settle upon its body, others see the man take on extra challenges. The title track, for instance, bravely goes from 5/4 to 4/4, and so does ʽThe Tallest Manʼ, I think (granted, the different sections there are dutifully marked as separate parts: on the whole, Sufjan remains a firm believer in the power of the monotonous mesmerizing groove).

Alas, in the end all this complexity and all this symbolism lead to pretty much the same dead end. All of the tracks set the same mood: I cannot genuinely name any stand-outs, big or small, because no matter how many times I spin the record, everything gels together in a puddle of soft, rosy musical goo. Whether he is singing about serial killers, Casimir Pulaski, the Sears Tower, or the Lord our Saviour, whether he is backing himself with just an acoustic guitar and a banjo or with an entire orchestra of strings, keyboards, and choral vocals, that befuddling «dollhouse feel» never, ever goes away. Sometimes it gets close to infuriating — the man sings about serious matters, and all he manages to come up with are these feather-light woodland fairy dances, with Stevens himself at the helm as a modern day St. Francis or something, so I feel like deep down inside, you'd probably have to be a Franciscan monk to really get this music.

I would say that the only time Illinoise manages, perhaps accidentally, to delve into emotionally less bubblegummy territory is on ʽThey Are Night Zombies!!ʼ, whose bass groove and relentless­ly «marching-on» backing vocals create a whiff of disturbance and ominousness in between Sufjan's usual quasi-Franciscan prayers for the departed — if there is one track that at least lightly interrupts the even flow of the album, it is that one. Even so, this «interrupt» is largely just a matter of cosmetic subtlety.

But what is wrong with a consistent atmosphere if it is produced so effectively?, you will ask. Well, nothing, really, except that I cannot regard this atmosphere as «satisfactory» from any possible point of view. Really great art is always offensive — that is, it goes on the offense, prod­ding you, challenging you, provoking you, shaking you up, making your fists clench or your spirit soar. Illinoise might come a bit closer to that state than any other Sufjan Stevens album in existence, but there is no tension in this music — just hollow, useless bliss. This is probably the kind of muzak that St. Peter now has installed in his personal elevator, although I'm pretty sure that even St. Peter could have his blood boiling in a pinch — I seriously doubt it that Sufjan Stevens would have been able to mobilize himself to cut off the high priest's servant's right ear in times of need.

One last excuse might be made, in that Stevens is also a big fan of Steve Reich, and if the mini­malist approach works well enough for Reich, why shouldn't it work for Sufjan? (See the final track, ʽOut Of Egypt...ʼ, which is pretty much just a direct four-minute tribute to Reich's loops). But the catch here is that Sufjan Stevens writes chamber pop, not minimalism; and chamber pop, like any other kind of pop (and like any other kind of chamber music, for that matter), requires dynamics to capture the listener's attention and spirit. Minimalist experiments are different — they may range from purely intellectual challenges to trance-inducing patterns; it is not the kind of music to which you should be expected to shed tears or feel sharp pangs. And besides, as ʽOut Of Egyptʼ clearly shows, Sufjan Stevens is not exactly pushing forward the boundaries of mini­malism, either — more like just homaging one more of his idols.

At the very least, Illinoise is a very welcome rebound from the total and utter slumber of Seven Swans — the quasi-orchestral arrangements help out quite a bit. But as one of the principal torch bearers for Art-Pop in the 21st century, Illinoise seems to me very much a false idol, unless, of course, we have reached an implicit agreement that Art-Pop has been completely reduced to Pythagorean musical geometry, because Dionysus happens to be doing time for a long history of offensive behavior and unsolicited sexual harrassment. From that point of view, why, sure, Sufjan Stevens may definitely be the symbol of our times.


  1. Sufjan's obviously not your cup of tea (and there's nothing wrong with that) but I still find your analogies to dollhouses really bizarre, though the St. Francis comparison is a bit more on point.

    And no lyrical discussion? I realize they don't connect with you, but it's still pretty unusual for a successful indie album from the 200's to sympathetically detail the life of a serial killer and then flip the song into a meditation on original sin. Oh well, I'll go ahead and mention the Predatory Wasp would be a highlight for me with its appealing folk melody, ambiguous lyrics, and celebratory conclusion.

    Likewise I must take issue with your claim that "Really great art is always offensive — that is, it goes on the offense." If this is so, then is Jane Austen great art? What about the impressionists? (not that I'm comparing Sufjan to either). But just because something is quiet and gentle surely shouldn't remove it from the realms of great art.

    1. I can elaborate on all three points:
      1) "Dollhouses" - everything that Sufjan does has a very cuddly and cozy aura to it (his production style and also a result of his playing most of the instruments on his own), the sound has very little depth / volume to it.

      2) I make it a point to never discuss the lyrics when the music is unappealing on its own. Besides, I don't really think there are any lyrical subjects that could truly be called "unusual" in the 2000s. There's been hundreds of songs written about serial killers and they often flip into something different.

      3) Quiet and gentle songs very often go on the offense, and, in fact, the impressionists were quite offensive for their age (remember the violent backlash against the genre? it offended plenty of people). I cannot imagine a truly great work of art that wouldn't smash against the senses in at least some way, rather than simply go along with the flow.

  2. Robert is onto something. I get that Sufjan will never "work" for you as a whole, but your advice on the old site always sticks with me: you should always really try to like a piece of art first; particularly well-reputed ones, I think. Not talking about the lyrics here because you don't like the music, with an artist like Sufjan, means you are not trying. But why bother reviewing it then? Because with Sufjan, the lyrics are what make the music work, contra most artists.

    1. If a piece of music can't stand up without lyrics, then I don't think the piece as a whole is worthwhile, is what George seems to be saying. And I like Sufjan a whole lot (more of an Age of Adz kinda guy) but I don't think he's approached the album the wrong way.

  3. Hmm, I'd have thought Sufjan was more someone to have a bone to pick with rather than swinging that axe to grind.

    Also, I've always got the impression that largely Stevens doesn't take himself entirely seriously, hmmm...too right!

  4. I agree with all your criticisms, but im surprised to see no mention of Come On! Feel The Illinoise! Because even though it has that rosy bubblegum aura, it actually has a dynamic symphonic melody. The song is catchy and the sounds have emotional depht to them. It's definitely a stand out in an otherwise dull album. Does the song do nothing for you?

  5. I am not sure your reason for wasting your time on reviewing so many albums of Sufjan Stevens or Carpenters - don't know how to explain ...something like mental sadomasohism.

    1. With such reviews you can almost picture George, quill in hand, muttering "poor misguided fools!"