With a pair of leaf-on-the-wind flutes and an echoing, metronomic piano–like a ghost of Astral Weeks’ melancholy-wounded orchestra–does velvet-voiced troubadour Sufjan Stevens first invoke our state, almost whispering the words to a quiet ballad called “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” Other titles refer to Decatur, Jacksonville, Rockford, Bushnell, the region of southern Illinois known as Little Egypt, and of course Chicago. But Illinois (also referred to as Come on Feel the Illinoise) doesn’t pretend the state is somehow worthy of special attention–it doesn’t transform Chicago into a muse, for instance, the way Polly Jean Harvey magicked up New York in Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Stevens’s 22-track ode to the Land of Lincoln is just the second entry in a series he hopes will eventually cover all 50 states. Naturally enough Stevens started with his childhood home, releasing Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State back in 2003 (these days he lives in Brooklyn). But even if Illinois is just another state Sufjan’s making a record about, it’s hard to feel snubbed when the record he made about us is so fucking beautiful.
The album casts its generous gaze on 200 years of Illinois vitae, but though Stevens admits that his information on the state is almost entirely secondhand, dug from books and solicited from friends, he doesn’t get all high-school-civics-class on us, pulling down a map from above the blackboard, cracking the curriculum to page one, and working forward from Lincoln in his log cabin all the way to R. Kelly trapped in a closet. His raw materials might be a web of eyewitness accounts, downstate fun facts, and Sun-Times headlines, but he brings them to life from the inside out with an emotionally involving intimacy and immediacy.
“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” is as good an example of this as any. On January 1, 2000, several people in and around the town of Highland–about 35 miles from Saint Louis in Madison County–reported seeing an enormous triangular object with three brilliant white lights moving slowly and almost silently. Some suspected it was a secret military aircraft, but in the words of Stevens’s imagined witness, delivered in an awestruck murmur, it becomes a “spirit of three stars”–a “revenant” and “incarnation” that’s “delivering signs.” Eighty seconds into the song, his voice arcs upward into a frail, impossibly sweet falsetto as he delivers the words history involved itself–and they’re a good shorthand for his method of storytelling. Rather than show us history as a distant panorama, he brings it to us through the eyes and hearts of his people.
Of course, it does help that when Stevens refers to history, he pulls from solid sources. Fellow Chi-town cheerleader Carl Sandburg, an audible influence on Stevens’s more romantic lyrics, gets called out by name in part two of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”–he makes a guest appearance in one of our hero’s dreams, asking “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 “Jacksonville” Stevens drops details from Vernon R.Q. Fernandes’s 1991 book about the city, The People of Jacksonville: A Pictorial History, like it’s quiz-bowl finals: the references range from the first state schools for the blind and deaf, established in the 1840s, to the standing debate about which Jackson the ville is named for–future president Andrew Jackson or prominent African-American preacher A.W. Jackson. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” repeatedly invokes the “Man of Steel”–Raymond Earl Middleton Jr., who became the first person to play Superman in public at the 1940 World’s Fair in New York, was born in Chicago. (Superman also flies over the Sears Tower on the CD’s cover, at least in the first pressing–now that DC Comics has registered its displeasure, he’ll be removed from subsequent runs.) The song’s stoic narrative reads like a tribute to novelist Saul Bellow, long associated with Chicago, and his hallowed idiom of masculine self-examination (“Only a real man can be a lover / If he had hands to lend us all over”). It feels like you could hunt for references in his lyrics forever and still not unpack everything: in just the last third of “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” Stevens nods to Shoeless Joe Jackson (of the infamous 1919 White Sox), Benny Goodman (born in Chicago), Jane Addams, the Great Fire, the Cubs’ billy goat curse, and the dyeing of the Chicago River green on Saint Patrick’s Day.
The music is no less obsessively crafted, and the sophisticated arrangements–though often employing guests on drums, trumpet, or strings as well as a crowd of backup singers–are entirely Stevens’s handiwork. Though he’s widely credited as a banjoist, he also throws down with guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, recorder, flute, oboe, glockenspiel, accordion, vibraphone, Wurlitzer organ, and the piano of a Brooklyn church. (His touring band, with just eight members, can only approximate the album’s splendor.) His banjo playing is more reminiscent of Kermit on a log than, say, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, and he’s no more impressive on oboe, but his competency as a composer and arranger shouldn’t be underestimated. “Chicago” is enormously gorgeous: the hushed verses percolate with urgent organ while the vibraphone plays peek-a-boo, and then with a sudden upsweep of strings the chorus hits, swelling into a maudlin summer hymn carried by a truckload of instruments and what sounds like eight honey-voiced virgins lifting the melody heaven high.
While most orchestral pop takes Pet Sounds as a template, Stevens’s work is more like something Phil Spector or Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team might have done on a punk budget–he can pull back from the most overwhelming bombastic heights to an intimate murmur and still keep a song propulsive. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” begins in a frisky 10/8 layered with vibraphone, trumpet, drums, tambourine, bass, flute, oboe, and who knows what else, then shifts into a rocking 4/4 splattered with a distorted electric-piano solo; halfway through there’s a sequence of riffs that sounds like the Cure’s “Close to You” dancing with The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi, and the quick verses about the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 read like a perverse answer to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” breezily indicting the fair’s amoral vision of urbanity and progress. It’s a hell of a jam.
But what Stevens does best is involve us emotionally. His lines can trip your heartstrings so suddenly that your eyes well up almost before you know what you’re reacting to. In “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a story about hesitant teenage lovers from Christian families whose romance is cut short by bone cancer, every detail the bereaved narrator remembers is painfully poignant: “In the morning, through the window shade / When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade / I could see what you were reading.” Not even God is a comfort: “He took my shoulders, and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” More than just involving us, Stevens seems to involve himself. As he describes John Wayne Gacy’s victims (“They were boys / With their cars / Summer jobs”) he breaks down with what sounds like an involuntary “Oh my god,” the last syllable stretched out for two full measures in tender, quivering falsetto. His storyteller’s distance collapses in an instant. He, too, is right there–or, more accurately, right here with us.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Denny Renshaw.