Sufjan Stevens invites you to Come On Feel the Illinoise; this is one invitation you should not decline.
Eight people dressed in navy and orange cheerleading uniforms ran onto the stage, opening the set, not with a crowd favorite but with a cheer about the state of Illinois. I thought to myself, “Am I at a football game or a concert?” All the words and movements for the cheer had been carefully calculated and rhymed. This captures the essence of Sufjan (SOOF-yan) Stevens, an artist who is not afraid to be playful with his music, while taking it very seriously – a unique combination that invites his listeners to enjoy the act of listening to his music.
In 2003, Sufjan Stevens declared that his albums would be dedicated to all 50 states, starting with Greetings from Michigan, his birthplace making it an obvious launchpad. After taking a detour with his next album Seven Swans, the cross-country road trip continued to a neighboring mid-western state with Come On Feel the Illinoise, his best work yet.
Each of the twenty-two songs on Illinois demonstrates Stevens’ ability to blend a cohesive sound through his mastery of the banjo, xylophone, choirs, trumpets, and string instruments. He has been compared to Elliott Smith for his gentle and soft acoustic guitar in songs like “CASIMIR PULASKI DAY” and “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, but resists being categorized with more funk-sounding, bass-emphasized tracks like “They are Night Zombies!! They are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!”
Unpredictable and eccentric are words that are too limiting for Stevens. Illinois takes the listener on a journey with rest stops as short as 19 seconds and marathons of titles over 50 words long. He educates us with the state history of Chicago’s great fire and influential individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Abraham Lincoln. Part II of the title track, one of my favorites, explains how the great poet Carl Sandburg inspired him.
But this album is not just a history lesson. The music is peppered with visions of Christ and the gospel. In the “THE SEER’S TOWER”, Stevens sings of “Emmanuel of Mothers, with His sword, with His robe” living “seven miles above the earth.” “The Spirit, the Carpenter invites us to be with her” in “THE TALLEST MAN, THE BROADEST SHOULDERS.”
Stevens is capable of hushing his audience only minutes after bopping about Illinois to sing about a serial killer in track 4 “JOHN WAYNE GACY, JR.” After painting the eerily detailed picture of the life of a murderer, Stevens confesses that “in [his] best behavior, [he] is really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets [he] has hid.” His humility challenges us to ask ourselves if we consider ourselves just as sinful as others. It reminds me that I am equally as broken and in need of a Savior as the people who have committed grotesque crimes and sit on Death Row. What about you?
Buy “Come On Feel the Illinoise” at Amazon.
Visit Sufjan Stevens at his official site.
Read other opinions at Paste Magazine and Pitchfork.