"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 ...