"In the Tower above the earth there is a view that reaches far/Where we cede the universe/I see the fire, I see the end/Seven miles above the earth, there is Emmanuel of Mothers/With His sword, with His robe, He comes dividing man from brothers."—from the Revelation themed "The Seer's Tower"
"Alternative" is an admittedly overbroad and overused term, but in reference to music that is truly different from the norm, the word is more than appropriate to describe the music of Sufjan Stevens. His latest, Illinois, comes as a welcome respite for music journalists during a summer drought of artistic stimulation. And considering that Stevens is relatively open about his Christian beliefs—2004's Seven Swans included clear-cut songs about Abraham and Christ's Transfiguration—it's rather impressive that he's now earning universal acclaim in mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly.
Illinois follows 2003's Michigan as the second album in Stevens' impossibly ambitious "50 States" series—how about calling it "Soof-yan USA?" It's something of a sonic masterpiece and nearly impossible to describe. Try to imagine Paul Simon hooking up with the retro, trippy choral sound of The Polyphonic Spree to create an eclectic pseudo-musical along the lines of Brian Wilson's Smile, throwing in some arrangements reminiscent of minimalist 20th century composer Phillip Glass to boot. Stevens' own list of musical contributions is literally a paragraph of more than 20 stringed, wind, and percussion instruments—the album relies as heavily on banjos, woodwinds, and vibes as it does piano, guitars, and drums.
With 24 tracks totaling 74 minutes, many of them musical segues, the album's length is even reflected in some of the rambling track titles themselves (you'll see what I mean). Illinois is primarily comprised of quiet and reflective alt-folk. "Jacksonville" is an especially catchy slice of folk pop that resembles classic Paul Simon or Jackson Browne. But there are also plenty of surprises that await the listener. "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders" both offer a staccato chorus and a caffeinated rhythm that seems both Latin and progressive, capturing the optimistic hustle and bustle of a state that thrives on agriculture and industry. And if you can imagine it, "Chicago" almost grooves like a beautifully orchestrated and acoustic version of U2's "New York."
Interesting that Stevens, a Michigan native currently living in Brooklyn, is only passively familiar with Illinois. He's still quite well versed in the locale, to the delight of state historians hoping that people will google the plentiful references to the Prairie State. There's even a tiny shout-out in track 17's too-long-to-print title (19 words!) for Bushnell, the small town best known for its annual Cornerstone Festival of Christian alternative music. But with repeated listens, it becomes apparent that an understanding of the Land of Lincoln isn't really essential or particularly revelatory. Stevens' songs aren't as much history lessons as they are his own ideas and stories painting metaphorically with the people and places of Illinois.
The same could also be said about the spiritual references on this album—more a songwriting device than an expression of faith. Thus, a somber folkie like "Casimir Pulaski Day" has more in common with Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember and almost nothing to do with the Polish Revolutionary War hero for whom the state holiday is named. And the song openly deals with matters of faith by questioning God over a girlfriend's death by cancer, as well as references to Bible studies, prayer, and "the glory of the Lord." Yet in spite of all this, there are also some subtle lyrics that suggest sexual indiscretion in the youthful relationship.