Sufjan Stevens concept of dedicating one long-playing album to each united state may repaint him as his generation?s Alan Lomax. Here playing researcher and musician, he may even become curator of his era?s most salient, American aural documentary series. The first one, ?Michigan,? which was conceived prior to the idea of a larger ?states? project, introduced Stevens as a quiet visionary, with outstanding musical breadth, and a soft but immaculate writing style and voice. The whole production was like that of a small town musical, composed of large ideas, and yet executed on a smaller stage. At one point near the end of the album, Stevens and a chorus of voices seemed to temporarily transform into a praying crowd of Midwestern townsfolk. ?Michigan? was effective because it was so carefully and intelligently prepared, with each instrumental and literary detail moving the story along.
The latest one, ?Illinois,? is even more far reaching and capitalized. His obsessions with squeezing up-tempo pop out of minimalist piano phrasing have enlarged. He uses more rhythmic progression and regression, multi-layering, and bigger arrangements to thicken the songs. The arrangements continue to be impeccably laid out and well-crafted, while equally smart and purposeful.
When Stevens plays with American music styles from minimalism to R&B, he beautifully turns a cultural reference into his own rounder, 3-dimensional sound. ?They are Night Zombies? uses Stax-era string parts, and the dramatic section fits. When he introduces a Neil-Young guitar riff in ?The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts?, he brings it in when most effecting and fitting, not as fluff, but rather to help develop (and complicate) the piece. Certain moments become too busy, jam-packed with horn parts and vocal harmonies that don?t need to be there, but even Stevens? tendency to exaggerate somehow complements the elevating nature of his compositions.
To keep ?Illinois? from becoming too bouncy or lush, Stevens leaves space for the musically non-cleansed or cluttered. The untouched folk songs sound as complete as the larger numbers, always lyrically and emotionally full. Stevens gives his impressions of the state?s sights and figures, creating what he calls an ?emotional landscape? over the occasionally opaque themes, which helps clear up the shout out to ?Emanuel of Mothers, with his sword?, for instance. (The Joe Jackson name drop is also greatly appreciated). It is when Stevens? character is involved in these stories that Illinois is penetrating. ?John Wayne Gacy Jr? humanizes both the subject and narrator, which forces Stevens to sing: ?in my best behavior/I am really just like him?.
An excellent writer, Stevens sketches out a place or an idea but leaves the listener to make connections between its history, his own, and why they overlap. One relationship that is most obvious and most moving has Stevens recalling his dream about Chicago-based poet Carl Sandburg. Envisaging himself as Sandburg, he asks: ?are you writing from the heart?/are you writing from the heart?? He?s not being evasive; he just knows how to properly bring up these kinds of questions.
Beyond an Alan Lomax, with ?Illinois,? Stevens emulates the subjects of his studies through his own song, turning a cultural research project into more of a personal artistic experiment. But enough from the Midwest. Let?s hope the next one finds Stevens taking on voodoo spirits in the Deep South. 8/10 -- Ivan Mairesse (8 July, 2005)