Twelve years on from its initial release, the American singer-songwriter’s ode to the Prairie State remains a modern classic; a significant milestone for both Stevens’ career, and fans around the world.
“Put Sufjan Stevens on, and we’ll play your favourite song,” croons Gary Lightbody, lead singer of Snow Patrol, on the Irish band’s 2006 single Hands Open. The song in question is Chicago, a paean to the Windy City appearing on Stevens’s aptly-titled 2005 release Illinois. The album is a musical journey through the eponymous American state, referencing significant places and figures in its history and weaving a rich tapestry of fable and myth into its sweeping orchestral arrangements. Illinois is also arguably the definitive Sufjan Stevens album; keeping Stevens’s trademark themes of love, faith, and family while also exploring more intriguing, surreal subjects including (but not limited to) aliens, zombies, serial killers, and wasps. It is a remarkable feat in itself to have made an indie folk album that can and will cater to just about any remotely open-minded listener on the planet – yet Stevens has done exactly that with Illinois, and it is for that reason exactly that many critics and fans alike consider the album his magnum opus to this day.
Illinois is certainly Stevens’s most musically and lyrically ambitious project to date
Illinois was Stevens’s fifth studio effort; released in rapid succession following the previous year’s Seven Swans. Stevens was and still is a zealous worker, having released nine albums (with a tenth collaborative album to follow this year), two Christmas collections (one of which has six discs and spans a solid 167 minutes) and one Christmas rap mixtape, several contributions to movie soundtracks, a ballet, and an orchestral suite; all since the beginning of his career at the start of the new millennium. It should come as no surprise, then, that Illinois is a 22-track juggernaut requiring a whole choir, a bevy of unusual instruments previously unheard of in the indie scene – including a glockenspiel and an accordion – and a ten-piece string section to be performed live. Even the song titles are lengthy enough to give mid-noughties Fall Out Boy a run for their money – the name of Illinois’ second track alone is long enough to constitute an entire paragraph. Discounting his upcoming collaborative project with Bryce Dessner (of folk darlings The National) and opera composer Nico Muhly, Illinois is certainly Stevens’s most musically and lyrically ambitious project to date.
A significant motif on Illinois is Stevens’s own Christian faith, re-purposed to tell stories of love, childhood innocence, and religious uncertainty. Album opener ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland’, Illinois is a thoughtful downtempo piano tune which looks to the skies and evokes biblical imagery of the apocalypse from the get-go. But the manner in which this is done hardly screams fire-and-brimstone prophecies. Instead, Stevens’s gentle alto eases listeners into his world – a world where, in his own words, “faith does not influence us because it lives within us” – and ensures that the constant allusions to his faith do not grow overly obtrusive or contrived. This is seen once again with The Seer’s Tower, on which Stevens uses the double-edged pun on Chicago’s Sears Tower and the Tower of Babel to tackle his difficult relationship with his mother, who abandoned him when he was but a year old. The minor chords and haunting choral accompaniment on The Seer’s Tower is heart-wrenching; evocative of wind through a deserted landscape, and depicting Stevens’s feelings of abandonment as so great and terrible that only biblical imagery would be enough to describe it after all.
But the most prominent display of Stevens’s faith and his internal struggles, however, are present on standout track Casimir Pulaski Day. Named after the holiday celebrated in Illinois, the song is a soft, shambling ballad recounting the story of young love marred by death, accompanied by only a banjo and a guitar. It is on Casimir Pulaski Day that Stevens truly establishes himself not as a holier-than-thou man of faith, but instead as someone prone to play Doubting Thomas in dark times just like the rest of us, even when recalling “all the glory that the Lord has made”. Illinois is a rare example of music on which faith and universal anxiety can coexist without crossing the boundaries into either proselytisation or heresy. As a lapsed Christian myself, listening to Illinois made me wish that I had the strength to preserve such unfailing conviction in the benevolent force of God. In this secular age where the role of religion in society is increasingly downplayed at the risk of oppressing the faithful, or is twisted and bastardised to serve as the root of extremism and terrorism, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reminder that belief can indeed coexist with moral conscientiousness and serve as solace for the spiritually-inclined without impinging on the more atheistic mainstream of today.
an unbelievably joyful tune, and a brilliant counterpoint to the melancholy of most of the other tales and truths that Stevens imparts on Illinois
Like most of Stevens’ other studio albums, there is an undercurrent of sadness running beneath the whole of Illinois. ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades’, another of the album’s illustrious tracks, transposes Stevens’ own experiences at summer camp in Michigan to the lush, bucolic backdrop of one of Illinois’ best-known national parks. The song’s narrative, centring around two young boys, culminates in the bittersweet choral refrain of “We were in love, we were in love, Palisades, I can wait” and tinges even such a heart-warming story of puppy love with mild undertones of sadness as the narrator struggles with his homosexuality, and his companion later deserts him. ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, which documents the misdeeds of its eponymous serial killer, is an equally minimalistic exercise in sadness, accompanied by only the sombre plucking of an acoustic guitar. It is also testament to Stevens’ lyrical deftness, in its analysis of human nature, and conclusion that even those who perform despicable acts may ultimately still have some humanity left in them.
The only song that is truly free from such dismal undertones is ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise!’, a camp, cheerful, and musically ambitious two-part composition that could have been lifted straight out of a Broadway show. ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise!’ boasts an impressively varied arrangement, with an entire orchestra backing Stevens as he sings of the rich mythology of the 1893 World’s Fair, held in Chicago after a heated battle with New York for the coveted host’s position. It is an unbelievably joyful tune, and a brilliant counterpoint to the melancholy of most of the other tales and truths that Stevens imparts on Illinois. Even after twelve years, the dread and the delight that Illinois alternates between are ever so relevant – the album is akin to a bedtime story being told, which allows for some escapism, but never truly loses its grip on reality because of how relatable and how inherently human its stories are.
paints a very real portrait of human nature as it is today
Since its release twelve years ago, Illinois has left an expansive legacy spanning further than a sole name-drop on a Snow Patrol song. Illinois was a huge milestone in Stevens’ own career, propelling him into the indie scene’s limelight as it reached the top spot on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and fourth place on the Billboard Independent Albums chart of 2005. Critical acclaim for the album was so overwhelming that it still holds an aggregate rating of 90/100 on Metacritic today, and is considered one of the best albums of its decade by publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and the NME. With this newfound fame, other artists began taking note of Stevens’ compositional prowess, even though at the time he had not yet branched out into the more experimental, electronic vein of 2010’s The Age of Adz, or the harder-hitting music produced by his side project, Sisyphus. Chicago was later sampled on rap artist Chiddy Bang’s song ‘All Things Go’, and hip-hop giant Childish Gambino expressed his admiration for Stevens on his song ‘Fire Fly’ in 2011. Furthermore, the depiction of homosexuality on Illinois as an innocent, harmless trait in mankind and simply the manifestation of another form of love (long before the advent of gay rights in the current decade), has made Stevens a gay icon for some in the indie community, and has sparked heated debate over whether Stevens himself is gay, amongst others. The true nature of his sexuality remains a mystery, but the fact that Illinois has become a symbol of empowerment for many remains.
All in all, Illinois is more than just a simple ode to the Prairie State. To Sufjan Stevens himself, it is the album that granted him his status as one of America’s most beloved songwriters, and that kick-started the rest of his career at the height of prominence and critical acclaim. To Stevens’ fans, it is a deeply personal work that does not fail to establish a connection between composer and listener; that paints a very real portrait of human nature as it is today. And in this day and age, when intolerance is still rife and corruption goes unnoticed, an album that can provide solace while never actually sugarcoating the darker side of history and humanity is a rarity indeed.
Image: Denny Renshaw