A painting of several of the lyrical elements from Illinois: UFOs and Superman fly over the Chicago skyline, with a goat standing in the bottom left corner and a gangster in a pinstripe suit standing on the right. Above this, text reads "SUFJAN STEVENS invites you to: Come on feel the ILLINOISE" in a variety of scripts and colors.

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.


  1. This was the first album of his that I bought- a great idea writing an album of songs about a state- but I sensed there was no way he was planning on following up on that ambition.. too many states! Enjoy the album though.

  2. I’ve heard the name but not the music. His music reminds me a little of Bon Iver…just more earthy. I’ll give him a listen today. Thanks, Stephen for the introduction.

  3. Graham, I love both of the selections you chose. Brand new music for me. Just checked the library: they have 4 of his albums, all on their way to me right now 🙂 Thanks for the introduction! The opening guitar sounds like Neil Young. I like the way the sounds build and layer with each other. The lyrics are brilliant. Good addition to our draft!

  4. Nice selection Graham. Sufjan Stevens is such a unique and talented artist, and since having my blog, I’ve come across a number of indie artists who cite him as a major influence in the creation of their music. I’ve listened to a fair amount of his music, but had not heard this particular album. Now listening to it on Spotify, and really liking the songs.

  5. How many times have I seen his albums and wondered what he sounded like, but never followed through to find out? I like this, and I agree it’s closer to the Nick Drake’s and Simon & Garfunkels of the world than “alternative.” Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Very nice pick…I will admit he’s a name I’ve seen a lot but don’ t know anything by him. The vids included sounded interesting but had sound on real quiet (people working in same room) so I want to listen again when I can hear a bit better. In short, a very good writeup & I think you just introduced several of us to a new talent.

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