It took me until my mid-twenties for me to actively seek out new music – up until that point I was spending my listening time catching up with older music. I gravitated to indie music – in a lot of cases it continued some of the things I liked about classic rock. It always confused me when The New Pornographers were filed in the “alternative” section of record stores when they sounded far more like The Beatles that say, Britney Spears (who were both in the pop/rock section).
Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens didn’t sound like especially the vintage popular music I was listening to, although he’d clearly listened to some of the same music I was enjoying. His quieter moments recalled the gentle songs of Nick Drake and Simon and Garfunkel. The repetitive modern classical music of Steve Reich, like Music for 18 Musicians, is also a clear influence, as well as the sonic experimentation of Brian Eno. While Stevens identifies as a Christian, he didn’t pigeonhole himself into the Christian market. Instead, he presented Christian themes in a record that resonated for many music fans.
2005’s Illinois was Stevens’ fifth album. I enjoyed 2004’s Seven Swans so much that I pre-ordered a copy. This was great because my early copy featured Superman on the cover – the label later covered up the man of steel, worried about a lawsuit from DC Comics. Seven Swans was very good, Illinois was a behemoth, a 73-minute album stuffed with musical ideas.
The gentle folk of Seven Swans was still there – on ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ Stevens compared his own secret misdeeds to the Chicago-born mass murderer. On the devastating ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ he sings of his hopelessness when a friend is diagnosed with bone cancer and his prayers are unanswered.
Stevens is a talented multi-instrumentalist who’s proficient on oboe, guitar, banjo, keyboards, and English horn, and he’s also a talented and idiosyncratic arranger. ‘Come On! Feel the Illinoise!’ escalates from an opening piano riff that recalls a Vince Guaraldi Peanuts theme into a multi-layered wonder. Jazzy horns punctuate ‘Jacksonville’, while ‘The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts’ is shaken by sections of thumping percussion and distorted guitars.
Illinois was Stevens’ second album based around a US state, following 2003’s Michigan. Stevens teased the album by promising 48 more records themed after states but has since acknowledged it was a publicity stunt. He’s only released two more studio albums since Illinois, although another new record, The Ascension, is due September 25th.