When writing about an album that has a publicized concept or noted back story, music critics jump at the opportunity to rehash the same tired anecdotes and obvious information (Brian Wilson‘s release of Smile last year being the worst example). So, to get them out of the way (and to insure this review appears on a Google search), the buzzwords and phrases associated with the new Sufjan Stevens album are here in alphabetical order; 50 states, ambitious, anti-folk, Michigan, long titles, Superman.
While a certain singer/songwriter from Nebraska has been getting all the buzz as being this generation’s spokesman, Sufjan Stevens has been slowly amassing an army of immensely loyal fan base. Sufjan is a great songwriter, and there was no doubt that this would be an enjoyable album. The music press has been hyping Illinois for a number of reasons, sellable hook aside, foremost being the sentiment that this could be the album that breaks him into the big time, the album that rises the “scene” he is connected to and its ilk (Regina Spektor, Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie) to the forefront.
He has a great ability of mixing intricate, complex melodies with the kind of anthemic hooks that appeal to a broader base. “Come on, feel the Illinoise” segues from a playful melody to a beautiful orchestrated bridge, where he clinches the song with the simple lament “I cried/myself/to sleep/last night.” His voice rarely raises above a delicate whisper, but it complements well with the array of instruments behind him. “The Predatory Wasp” is a great example of this, as the woodwinds fills in all of the gaps he leaves with his delivery.
As he did with his last state(ment), the references to cities and landmarks are more than just window dressings. He creates a narrative within the songs that builds on the mythologies contained within the buildings, capitals, and people, past and present, that inhabit Illinois. When he is finished, the fantastic and the mundane coalesce into this work of art that could only be about Illinois. He paradoxically eliminates the line between the reality and fantasy while also reinforcing the border that makes up the state.
The albums biggest setback is its length. Clocking in over 70 minutes, the listener can feel as if they are driving through the state, let alone listening about it. And while length alone isn’t an indictment on his ability (he certainly shows range and variety), but the moment you look at a clock to see how long it is going is the moment the album has gone on too long. With that said, his final stanza is very strong however, featuring what may be his best song yet, “The Seers Tower.” Over a solemn piano floating in the nether, he sings “in the tower above the earth/we built it for Emmanuel” as a choir of ghosts surrounds him. A truly chilling moment.