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Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

By Jenny Bootle

A few weeks ago my sister and I were lounging on the sofa and chatting when she asked me: “What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?” I thought for a moment and then replied: “Sufjan Stevens at The Barbican. 2006.” My sister’s response was to silently reach into her pocket and pull out a raised finger, turning it round to face me. I had won the game because, for those who know his music, Sufjan is the trump card, cutting paper, blunting scissors and wrapping stone. (She later remembered that she’d been to the original “Live Aid” but I told her it was too late to add that in!)

Sufjan Stevens doesn’t do music videos, his website lacks a lot of information you’d expect on an artist’s site and he rarely does interviews; yet he sells out concert halls, has a dedicated following, gets a mention in a Snow Patrol lyric ("Hands Open"), and prompts this reaction from my sister. So it’s clear that he's no run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter-musician. The man even does Christmas albums…5-disc box set Christmas albums! If you haven’t heard Sufjan Stevens yet then I envy you, for all this is yours to come.
Sufjan Stevens
In 2008, I moved from England to Wisconsin, to a town an hour away from the Illinois border. I packed my belongings into two suitcases and went to join the one other person I knew there. On the plane I listened to the song “Chicago” on repeat and over the next couple of years “Illinois” was my driving soundtrack as I watched the highway pass beneath me. One day I drove over a bridge named after Casimir Pulaski (see track list for significance) and it felt like stepping into somebody else’s footprints. It means that now the album "Illinois" will always feel like a part of myself.

In 2003, Stevens released "Michigan" and announced his intent to write an album for each of the 50 states. So far, only two of these state albums have been forthcoming - "Illinois" was the second installment - and it’s still not clear if more will follow. Every so often a tantalising rumour of the next state album will surface (Oregon? North Dakota? Arkansas?) but Stevens remains illusive about the subject.

It’s hard to describe Sufjan’s musical style to the uninitiated – for really he’s like nothing else. He plays several different instruments and individual tracks will often feature a mixture of brass, strings, woodwind, drums and piano, creating a symphonic sound. Songs on "Illinois" range from just 6 seconds long to over 7 minutes and the album manages to encompass spirituality, history, industrial landscapes, local folklore, biblical allusions and references to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frank Lloyd Wright and other noted Illinois residents.

So many tracks stand out in different ways. The hauntingly beautiful song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” tells the tale of Chicago’s most famous serial killer whilst the story in “Casimir Pulaski Day” will break your heart in its exploration of the complications of faith and loss (“Oh the glory…” “And he takes and he takes and he takes”). It’s impossible not to tap your foot to “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother" and the soaring trumpet notes that follow the galloping chorus of “Chicago” manage to make you feel both excited and sad at the same time. And really, who couldn’t love an album which includes a track titled: “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!”

"Illinois" is an album unlike any other and if you haven’t heard Sufjan Stevens yet, then I envy you, for all this is yours to come.