Some ambitious folk make it a goal of theirs to visit each of the 50 states of the Union in their lifetime. Sufjan Stevens has a mind to record an album dedicated to each of those states. Having lived my entire life in Illinois and cultivated a reasonably fair amount of knowledge regarding the state’s history and distinguishing characteristics, I was pleased to hear Stevens was planning to release an ode to the Land of Lincoln with his second album of the series.
Stevens, a native of Michigan (the first state in
his project), had at one point spent part of his life
in Wrigleyville. Reflecting on his experience,
he presumably decided to make Illinois his next album’s subject matter. What makes this album so remarkable is the ambitious scale of the task.
How does one fill the verses of a full-length album with accurate details concerning the folk tales,
tradition and history of an entire state? How can he appease the Illinois population with the right amount of tribute while crafting an album that even non-Illinois residents can appreciate? And how does he do it when the only time he spent in the state was in the north side of Chicago?
It’s impressively evident that Stevens did his homework. His songs incorporate otherwise obscure references to Illinois history taken from the Rock River Valley down to Little Egypt. He name drops the likes of Carl Sandburg, Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ronald Reagan. He tells stories with mention of the Black Hawk War, Superman, the Columbian Exposition, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the state’s most infamous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr. If there is one blemish to his story telling it’s that he fails to mention C-U or the Orange and Blue. He brings up Chicago, Peoria, Jacksonville, Metropolis, Kankakee, even Decatur, but he never talks about Champaign or Urbana.
The result is a 74 minute, 22-track epic covering what’s great (Abraham Lincoln) and what’s not so great (John Wayne Gacy Jr.) about Illinois.
And while the lyrical descriptions of Illinois’ heritage should be enough to entice your consideration, you should know that the music that carries the words is equally strong. Stevens mans an impressive array of instruments. The album insert lists over 20 instruments he played when composing the songs, including the glockenspiel and oboe.
Listening to the album, you can just sense the painstaking work Stevens put into this album, in research and composition alike. And you realize there is no possible way he could complete 10 more albums of this standard, let alone another 48. It took him two years to release Illinois after completing Greetings from Michigan. Forty-eight more at two years a piece? You do the math. And both of these are states he’s at least at one point staked residence in.
The album is an excellent mixture of storytelling and interludes. Stevens’ soft vocals hover just loud enough over the meticulously calculated melodies to tell the listener a story of past or present Illinois lore. He easily conveys a range of emotions with his voice and instrumentation-excitement (“The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders”), pride (Part I of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”), reverence (“The Seer’s Tower”), fear (“Casmir Pulaski Day”), and anxiety (“They Are Night Zombies!!! They are Neighbors!! The Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhh!”)-through the collection of tracks.
Not only is it a remarkably well made folk album, but it also serves as an introductory history lesson to those of us who are not from the great state of Illinois, and as a reminder for those of us who are.