Yet another entry in the series of “Albums I Have Been Obsessed With“.
I have my friend Henry to blame for this one, as he first introduced me to the drug known as Sufjan Stevens by bunging me his 2005 album (Come on feel the) Illinoise (Rough Trade/Asthmatic Kitty) as a bunch of mp3s with the words “Oh, you might like this” (I’ve since bought a legit CD version, of course).
And not only is the music captivating, and his lyrics enchanting – but he is super-hot too. Go on, do a Google image search…
Due to the vagaries of my ancient, brick-sized mp3 player, I could neither read the track names or play them in order. So the subtlety of the tracks blending into each other – and their quite extraordinary (and rather pretentious*) names was lost on me until I got my hands on my own copy.
But my God I loved this album. I think I listened to it pretty much non-stop for several weeks – in the gym, on the tube, sneakily at work, at home. The melodies played over and over in my head, waking me in the night with visions of a strange place captured in music.
Illinoise is the second in Stevens’ alleged grand project to write an album about every state in the US (the first being 2004’s Michigan). Though current evidence would suggest he’s run out of steam… If nothing else, it represents fantastic value for money, featuring an impressive 22 tracks on a single disc. But what tracks they are! I found it impossible to pick out a favourite track, but here are a few highlights:
John Wayne Gacy, Jr
Never before has a song about a “killer clown” sounded so beautifully melancholic. In this gentle ballad about a man who raped and killed 33 boys and men, Stevens brings a fragment of humanity and tenderness to the horrific crimes. The music is lush and enveloping- rhythmic piano and guitar trundling along under the twisted lyric, fading out to the ghosts of notes and breathy feedback. Here’s the track:
Casimir Pulaski Day
A real heartbreaker, this one – I can hardly bear to listen. Jaunty banjo and recorder accompany devastatingly sad lyrics about a young girl dying of cancer. I’m aware that so far Illinoise doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh-riot, but these are gorgeous crafted songs, that complement their dark content perfectly.
The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!
Another absolutely beautiful song – wistful lyrics of love and loss against delicate guitar and flute, building up to a joyous burst of orchestra and choir. And wasps. Actually, throughout the album, the orchestration and arrangements are fantastically intricate, and worthy of a special mention.
Chicago is clearly the big “hit” of the album – driving drums and guitar pushing along a hooky melody. I love this song, and remember tearfully trudging around west London listening to it as my life fell apart around me, wishing I could “drive to New York, in a van with my friend”, sleeping in my clothes in a parking lot. The only thing that very slightly spoils the song for me is the conviction that one of the violins is slightly out of tune. But I am a bit of a pedant about stuff like that.
You have to listen to this album. You need to let these captivating songs of fear, faith, wisdom and human frailty sear into your brain. Listen to the banjo roll of Decatur, or the eerie, sparse beauty of The Seers Tower and tell me this isn’t wonderful.