State of the art: Sufjan Stevens visits ‘Illinoise’
July 28, 2005
A few years back, Sufjan Stevens initiated a project to write an album for each of the 50 states. Born in Detroit, he began with an homage to his native state, “Greetings From Michigan.”First hearing the record in an Ann Arbor apartment, flooded by childhood memories of humid summers and woodsy adventures, I was languidly transported back to the cool waters of Lake Michigan. The folksy album offered up a refreshingly honest depiction of the Great Lakes State. Touching on the economic hardships of urban Michigan, Stevens could be emulating a factory worker whose plant has been shut down in the somber “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)”: “Since the first of June / Lost my job and lost my room / I pretend to try / Even if I tried alone.”
“Come on Feel the Illinoise!” the recent second album in his seemingly overambitious States project, is proof of Stevens’ conviction toward his music. When approached on his methods for documentation, he told the music website Pitchfork Media, “It’s the same kind of research you do when fiction writing. It has much to do with your own personal history, your own experience, your own relationships. I’m trying less to create a historical picture, or a cultural assessment, and making more of an emotional assessment.”The 22-track “Illinoise” spans the geographical and historical territory of the Prairie State, gathering on Sufjan’s teenage visits to Chicago and tireless research. Uncovered along the way are poet Carl Sandburg (whose ghost appears to ask, “Are you writing from the heart?”); serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr.; and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, “Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons,” according to Stevens’ title.Brought to life through an assemblage of instruments and youthful voices, “Illinoise” digs into the reality and the history of the land while cleverly avoiding clichés. The Sears Tower is renamed “The Seer’s Tower”; Stevens plays with and honors the state’s reputation in the twisted, twisting “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders.”
The historical references and musical interludes each hinge upon deeper and perhaps greater themes of emotional exploration. Stevens’ creative-writing background is palpable through his delicate song writing and empathy for the people he sings about.The heartbreaking “Casimir Pulaski Day” precisely displays Stevens’ blending of the historical and the personal: Pulaski was a Polish general whose name now adorns a Southside Chicago boulevard. In the song, an innocent night at Bible study leads to the unexpected mourning of a friend: “On the first of March / on the holiday / I thought I saw you breathing.”Next, the mood switches to the guitar-laden, Superman-inspired, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” Stevens engineers an album that is daring enough to whisk us through various plots and turns, yet simultaneously guides us back home.
Compared to “Michigan,” the tempo of the Windy City album seems more upbeat. Its patchwork of banjo, piano, strings and horns – all played by Stevens – provides a complexity of sounds rich in state spirit. At 30, Stevens, now based in Brooklyn, operates his own music label with only a few helping hands. Asthmatic Kitty Records, functioning out of offices in New York, Indiana and Wyoming, began as a collective of musicians on the Holland, Mich., circuit. Each stop on the current tour with his band, the Illinoisemakers, features an artist from his label. Fellow Kitty rocker Liz Janes, whose list of musical influences ranges from jazz to punk to gospel, will accompany Stevens at his Aspen debut Saturday, July 30.Stevens has left his listeners wondering which state he will choose next. The way he has given an identity to Michigan, and now Illinois, Americans from Massachusetts to Hawaii are probably waiting their turn.