Tuesday, 5 July 2005

Illinois, by Sufjan Stevens

1 Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois 2:08
2 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!" 2:14
3 Come On! Feel the Illinoise! Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream 6:45
4 John Wayne Gacy, Jr. 3:19
5 Jacksonville 5:24
6 A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But for Very Good Reasons 0:47
7 Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother! 3:03
8 One Last "Whoo-Hoo!" for the Pullman 0:06
9 Chicago 6:04
10 Casimir Pulaski Day 5:53
11 To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament 1:40
12 The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts 6:17
13 Prairie Fire That Wanders About 2:11
14 A Conjuction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze 0:19
15 The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us! 5:23
16 They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbours!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh! 5:09
17 Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell 0:40
18 In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth 0:35
19 The Seer's Tower 3:53
20 The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders, Part I: The Great Frontier / Part II: Come to Me Only With Playthings Now 7:02
21 Riffs & Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds and The King of Swing, to Name a Few 0:46
22 Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run 4:21

(The bold items are the 13 actual songs, the rest are instrumentals, preludes and postludes.)

My Review of 'Illinoise'

    I'm sure many other music fans would have said 'Sufjan who?' when they saw this CD getting critical praise from left, right and centre. Certainly I wondered, and it took a lot of reading to convince me that this wasn't simply a case of 'indie-darling of the week'. I took the plunge, and wired more of my cash to Amazon.
    First impressions: It's long! The music is cute, softly sung, generally upbeat, and dense too. And did I mention how long it was? At 75 minutes this equates to a double LP in old money.
    How enviable it is to earn a living as a music reviewer, and yet I pity them for having to quickly make sense of something as varies and densely packed as this, and from an artist who might have been unknown to them at that point. I'd have to burn the midnight oil to fully comprehend this CD in a week in rotation with others, and then write a cogent review.
    Some background details are in order here. Illinoise is the second of Sufjan's so-called '50 state project'. Greetings from Michigan (his home state) in 2003 was the first. Thus, the songs in this collection are inspired by his neighbour state of Illinois, if not in content then in the quirky titles. Sufjan plays a long list of instruments, so we're listening to a multi-tracking feast, and multi means more than just a handful. Produced and recorded by Sufjan too, as likely in somebody else's apartment (on borrowed instruments), or perhaps late at night on a piano in a church. Speaking of church, Sufjan is a Christian, and this sometimes informs the content in the most striking and subtle ways.
    I'll abbreviate the titles in this review (the full ones are shown above), starting with Concerning the UFO, a rather striking, mystical, disorientating song backed by piano and flutes. It's probably the only song you'll ever hear in 65/16 time, so enjoy it!
    Unusual time signatures are a Sufjan trademark, as his habit of joining tracks into continuous suites, such as here when Concerning the UFO give way to a choir of portentous voices and a bracing drum and horn fanfare, 'The Black Hawk War'.
    Notwithstanding the double prelude which introduces this musical journey, the CD really kicks off with the punchy piano opening of 'Come on Feel the Illinoise'. The exhuberant 5/4 rhythm of 'Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition' brings to mind the music from Peanuts by Vince Guaraldi. Atop the jagged rhythm is a great little tune shared between Sufjan and his familiar posse of girl-nextdoor backing singers. But that is just part 1. After two minutes the song reaches a middle instrumental section, heralded by a variation of the opening piano lick. Various musical themes emerge, a string quartet trading licks with a fuzzy electric guitar, while the horns blast out a theme similar to The Cure's Close to Me. The music slides effortlessly from 5/4 to 4/4 and the earlier motifs for guitars, strings and horns are combined to provide a lush background for Part II Carl Sandburg Visits Me In a Dream, in which one of Chicago's notable poets questions the singer about his artistic integrity.

I cried myself to sleep last night
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window
I was hypnotized, I was asked
To improvise
On the attitude, the regret
Of a thousand centuries of death

Whilst, Sandburg's questioning is voiced by the girl 'Illinoisemakers'.

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

On any other album this seven minutes of musical joy would be the absolute pinnacle, but this isn't any other album, there are other tracks here that could easily make such a claim...
    ...and it's the next song which is possibly the most written-about. Stevens' attempt to empathise with 'John Wayne Gacy Jr' runs the risk of seeming apologist as the formative years of Chicago's notorious child killer are laid out for us. But in this tender number (backed by piano, picked acoustic guitar and bass) Stevens' voice perfectly conveys the horror of this man's deeds, gasping for breath in his falsetto as he sings:

Twenty-seven people
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Are you one of them?

    'Jacksonville' is the most conventional song so far, a mid-tempo soul-rock number, enhanced by the interwoven thread of a string section within the full compliment of band, horns and voices. It desolves into 'A Short Reprise for Mary Todd' a simple string-based outro.
    The squeezebox and banjo backing on 'Decatur' give it a back-porch feel very different from the rest of the CD. Sufjan squeezes every possible rhyme out of Decatur. The harmonised voices of Sufjan and Matt Morgan proves a winning combination. 'One Last Woo Hoo for the Pullman' is merely a six second outro, so not worth buying on iTunes!
    'Chicago' is the hit song from this CD. It's one of the simpler tunes here but contains all the trademark backing of strings, horns and voices, together with a catchy soft verse/loud chorus. Through its use in the media (Such as Little Miss Sunshine), this is the one song that has gained a life of its own beyond this CD. There are much better tracks on this CD but few that are as immediate. The song fades out with a vocalisation that hints at the windy city.
    Along with Chicago, 'Casimir Pulaski Day' forms the double centrepiece of the CD. Whilst the tune is a fine one, with a strong counterpunctual banjo motif, it's the stark and moving lyrics that grab the listener, the story of a teenage girlfriend's death from bone cancer, and how the narrator tries to reconcile that with his faith. The whole lyric is quotable but I'll settle for:

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

    'To the Workers of the Red Rock Valley Region' functions as an outro, and although I've seen this album criticized for its instrumental track, I think the device works well in giving themes and moods some breathing space, and this one provides a breather between two of the most diverse songs on the album.
    'The Man From Metropolis'plays the loud/soft game again, a strident guitar riff (the rockiest moment on the CD) alternating with tender acoustic verses. It all comes together beautifully towards the end, before and dreamlike fading in and out.
    'Prairie Fire' couldn't be more different, a curious fugue-like chant in praise of Peoria which soon yields to...
    'A conjunction of Drones' which is merely an excuse for another quirky title, and provides a suitable lead-in to what is arguably Sufjan's most ambitious, subtle and beautiful composition, 'The Predatory Wasp'. If somebody states that this is their favourite track, you know they're a serious listener. Musically, it is fascinating, the flute and guitar verse, leading first to sixteen bars of pure Philip Glass, and after the second verse, to a lyrical and melancholic trumpet solo, and then the Philip Glass occurs again, this time as a backing for a dramatic chorus, finally to a multipart instrumental and vocal of not unlike an operatic quartet, a pity it ends too soon. The story is ambivalent to say the least, and concerns a childhood visit to The Palisades. Is it a tale of pubescent homosexual attraction? Is the writer speaking from female perspective? Somebody ran away, but who, and why? Like most of Sufjan's childhood tales it is beguiling. The final fugal verse has a power, atmosphere and tension that defies the gentleness of the arrangement. It ends with the following words, by which time you are losing count of the number of vocal and instrumental lines weaving in and out of each other.

I can't explain the state that I'm in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend
Into the car, from the backseat
Oh, admiration in falling asleep
All of my powers, day after day
I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed
Deep in the tower, the prairies below
I can tell you, the telling gets old
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you the day we were born
My friend is gone, he ran away
I can tell you, I love him each day
Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged
I can tell you, I love him each day
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you

    The storm becomes a sonic crescendo of electronic noise, finally broken of by the spacious opening guitar chord of 'They Are Night Zombies'. A cool funk bass riff establishes the tempo of the song, and soon other riffs from guitar, horns and strings and staccato female chanting are layered over it. Later Sufjan layers a stunning falsetto tune on top of an already glorious pudding of counterpunctual sounds. It suddenly yields to 'Let's hear that string part again', which for 16 bars does exactly that.
    'In this Temple' is another intro, leading to the stark 'The Seers Tower', a song rich in biblical symbolism, until interrupted by an amazing personal confession:

In the tower above the earth, we built it for Emmanuel
In the powers of the earth, we wait until it rips and rips
In the tower above the earth, we built it for Emmanuel
Oh my mother, she betrayed us, but my father loved and bathed us

Not everybody likes this song, but be patient, it'll get them one day.
    Sufjan proves to be a master of pacing and mood, after the preceding track ends with a respectful few seconds of silence, the gentle rhythm of bells leads perfectly into the finale, The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders. The sheer exuberance of this song (in 11/4 timing) proves that more than an hour in, Sufjan has inspiration left to burn.
    'Riffs and Variations' is as expressive as a one note 46 second trumpet solo can be. However it perfectly links the preceding song to the album's only full instrumental 'Out of Egypt', a beguiling piece of Steve Reich style minimalism. The tune end with instruments dropping out until we are left with a finger hammering down on a single note on a piano, and then that stops and we hear the creaky foot-pedal of the piano of St Paul's Episcopalian Church in Brooklyn being released. The sharp-eared listener will recall the first sound on this CD (75 minutes ago) was the same foot-pedal being pressed down. A strange and poignant moment.
    Writing this review, and listening to this CD 2 years after its release, I don't know whether it's the best album ever made, but if you like baroque pop, I think it might be.

Media Reviews
Slant Magazine
dotmusic (Yahoo)

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