Sufjan Stevens releases his beautiful and moving Illinois

Sufjan Stevens 2005 (dailyherald.com)

Sufjan Stevens 2005

Introduction

In 2003 Sufjan Stevens announced his Fifty States Project, a project that would result in 50 albums, each attributed to one of the 50 states in the US. In 2005 episode 2 was released: the incomprehensibly beautiful Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE, in short Illinois.

The prequel

The first installment of Stevens’ Fifty States Project (Stevens would later admit it was a promotional gimmick) was Michigan, a phenomenal album that put Stevens’ name on the map. The following album was not part of the project: Seven Swans.

In 2005 the second part of the Fifty States Project was announced. This time the subject would be the state of Illinois. On Sufjan Stevens’ own site (sufjan.com) Illinois is described as follows:

Like the self-proclaimed “Spiderman” who climbed Chicago’s Sears Tower with no harness, Sufjan Stevens scales dusty prairies, steel factories, and two hundred years of history in the second installment of his 50 State Project, “ILLINOIS”, a 22-track anthematic tone poem to The Prairie State.

An engrossing musical road trip, “Illinois” takes you through ghost towns, grain mills, hospital rooms, and the City of Broad Shoulders, with guest appearances by a poet, a president, a serial murderer, UFOs, Superman, the goat that cursed the Cubs, and Decatur’s famous Chickenmobile. Sufjan weaves variegated musical styles (jazz, funk, pop, folk, and Rodgers and Hammerstein-like flourishes) and the textures of 25 instruments into a tapestry of persons and places famous, infamous, iconic and anonymous. Invoking the muse of poet Carl Sandburg, “Illinois” ushers in trumpets on parade, string quartets, female choruses and ambient piano scales arranged around Stevens’ emerging falsetto.

© sufjan.com

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (discogs.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

Illinois

Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE is the fifth studio album by Sufjan Stevens, which was released on July 4th, 2005 (one day later in the US). It consists of songs referencing places, events and persons from the American state of Illinois.

In preparation Stevens read books by Illinois authors like Saul Bellow and Carl Sandburg, studied archives and history. He visited multiple locations and requested friends and acquaintances to share their stories about places and/or events from the state.

Subsequently, Stevens went to work and composed all the music, followed by Stevens recording it by himself at The Buddy Project studio and in his own apartment in New York. Stevens: “I was pretty nearsighted in the construction of Illinois. I spent a lot of time alone, a few months in isolation working on my own and in the studio. I let things germinate and cultivate independently, without thinking about an audience or a live show at all”.

Lyrics

The lyrics mention many persons, places and events from the Illinois, like a UFO sighting near Highland, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the state celebration of Casimir Pulaski Day, Superman (Metropolis was based on Chicago), manufacturer Caterpillar, author Carl Sandburg, former president Abraham Lincoln, the Sangamon River, the Chicago Cubs, the Sears Tower and multiple city names.

Sufjan Stevens 2005 (culturemap.com)

Sufjan Stevens 2005

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

The song John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is exemplary for Stevens’ capability to transform a gruesome history into rare beauty. The song is about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was responsible for the rape and murder of 33 boys and men, 29 of which he had buried beneath the floorboards of his own home.

The music is moving and intimate. The singing sounds compassionate

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne’s T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head

The tone shifts quite swiftly.

Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs

The song ends with a personal confession, when Stevens compares himself to Gacy. In 2009 he even stated that “we’re all capable of what [Gacy] did”. In itself a correct statement, in the sense that Gacy was as much a human as the rest of us. Nevertheless , the statement still is a bit uncomfortable.

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

The way in which Stevens names details from the case and intertwines it with the music is unique. Besides: anyone who is capable to move with a song about a tragedy of this scale, is truly a great artist.

Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!

A beautiful song that stands out for its creative use of rhyme. The fact that Stevens rhymes the place name Decatur with words like ‘alligator’, ‘operator’, ‘aviator’, ‘debater’, ’emancipator’, ‘denominator’, ‘abominate her’ and ‘appreciate her’, is impressive enough, but to tell a coherent story along the way is downright impressive.

Sufjan Stevens - Chicago (2016 single) (hypebeast.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Chicago (2016 single)

Chicago

One of Sufjan Stevens’ most beautiful songs (it’s my young son, and author, Timur’s favorite song). A tear inducing song about love and friendship.

I fell in love again
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
All things know, all things know
We sold our clothes to the state
I don’t mind, I don’t mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

If I was crying
In the van with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes

Casimir Pulaski Day

Immediately following is Casimir Pulaski Day, an astoundingly beautiful song about the death of a loved one due to cancer, blossoming innocent love and overall doubt about God and his intentions.

Goldenrod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh, the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh, the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh, the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh, the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes

The humanity, purity and emotion this song portrays each and every second is of a beauty that’s as rare as it is indescribable. If anyone takes anything from this article, listen to this moving Casimir Pulaski Day, one of the most impressive pieces of music ever made. Listen in silence and awe.

The faith in (the goodness of) God, which was still firm on the preceding Seven Swans, seems less obvious when applied to personal tragedy.

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois - Covers (apoplife.nl)

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois – Covers

Cover

Artist Divya Srinivasan made the album cover, combining several Illinois themes, including Lincoln and Al Capone. Just moments before the initial release problems arose surrounding the depiction of Superman. DC Comics, owner of the image, agreed to the sale of the first pressings under the condition that the Superman image was deleted from further pressings. This ultimately led to various cover pressings:

  1. with the Superman image
  2. with the Superman image covered by a balloon sticker
  3. with balloons instead of the Superman image
  4. no image at the position containing the Superman image
  5. with an image of the Marvel character Blue Marvel

Despite the controversy the cover won the PLUG Independent Music Award in 2006.

Singles

No singles or videos were culled from the album. In 2016 a demo version of Chicago was released as a single to accompany the Illinois (Special 10th Anniversary Blue Marvel Edition) release.

Success

The album was a huge (international) success and made Stevens’ name as a musician and composer. The press in particular hailed the album a a masterpiece.

Sales wise it did great as well. In August 2017 the album was certified Gold in the US (more than 500,000 copies sold). The album was very well received in Europe as well. In July 2012 the album was certified Silver in the UK.

At the end of 2005 Illinois was named album of the year in many countries by various publications, 5 years later followed by nominations for album of the decade.

Review

All praise is more than justified. The warmth and the rich instrumentation, the beautiful lyrics and the overall emotion make this album an essential part of every (record)collection. The fact that Stevens was, all by himself, responsible for the end result astounds even more. The wealth in immeasurable, the humanity sincere and the performance phenomenal. An album of unparalleled class!

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois - Foldout (pupae.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois – Foldout

Songs

All songs written by Sufjan Stevens.

  • Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois
  • The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!’
  • Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)
  • John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
  • Jacksonville
  • A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons
  • Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
  • One Last ‘Whoo-Hoo!’ for the Pullman
  • Chicago
  • Casimir Pulaski Day
  • To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament
  • The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
  • Prairie Fire That Wanders About
  • A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
  • The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
  • They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!
  • Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell
  • In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth
  • The Seer’s Tower
  • The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” (Part I: The Great Frontier – Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)
  • Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few
  • Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run

Musicians

  • Sufjan Stevens – acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, bass, drums, electric guitar, oboe, saxophone, flutes, banjo, glockenspiel, accordion, vibraphone, Casiotone MT-70, sleigh bells, shakers, tamborine, triangle, electric organ, vocals
  • Julianne Carney & Rob Moose – violin
  • Marla Hansen – viola
  • The Illinoisemaker Choir, Katrina Kerns, Matt Morgan, Daniel and Elin Smith & Shara Worden – background vocals
  • Maria Bella Jeffers – cello
  • James McAlister – drums
  • Craig Montoro – trumpet, background vocals
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois - Tour (asthmatickitty.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois – Tour

Tour

Within two weeks after the album’s release Stevens went on tour with the album. The band he took along with him was named Illinoisemakers. From September to November 2006 he toured again and came to Europe. During the second tour the costumes were changed from University of Illinois cheerleader outfits to outfits with butterfly and bird themes, including wings.

Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche (music.sufjan.com)

Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche

The Avalanche

On July 11th, 2006, Sufjan Stevens released the album The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album!, or The Avalance. The album is “shamelessly compiled by Sufjan Stevens” and consists of outtakes from the Illinois sessions.

On music.sufjan.com the album is described as follows:

The little secret behind the Illinois record is that it was originally conceived as a double album, culminating in a musical collage of nearly 50 songs. But as the project began to develop into an unwieldy epic, common sense weighed in—as did the opinions of others—and the project was cut in half. But as 2005 came to a close, Sufjan returned to the old, forsaken songs on his 8-track like a grandfather remembering his youth, indulging in old journals and newspaper clippings. What he uncovered went beyond the merits of nostalgia; it was more like an ensemble of capricious friends and old acquaintances wearing party outfits, waiting to be let in at the front door, for warm drinks and interesting conversation. Among them were Saul Bellow, Ann Landers, Adlai Stevenson, and a brief cameo from Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls. The gathering that followed would become the setting for the songs on The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album.

Sufjan gleaned 21 useable tracks from the abandoned material, including three alternate versions of Chicago. Some songs were in finished form, others were merely outlines, gesture drawings, or musical scribbles mumbled on a hand-held tape recorder. Most of the material required substantial editing, new arrangements or vocals. Much of the work was done at the end of 2005 or in January the following year. Sufjan invited many of the original Illinoisemakers to fill in the edges: drums, trumpet, a choir of singers. The centerpiece, of course, was the title track—The Avalanche—a song intended for the leading role on the Illinois album but eventually cut and placed as a bonus track on the vinyl release. In his rummaging through old musical memorabilia, Sufjan began to use this song as a meditation on the editorial process, returning to old forms, knee-deep in debris, sifting rocks and river water for an occasional glint of gold. “I call ye cabin neighbors,” the song bemuses, “I call you once my friends.” And like an avid social organizer, Sufjan took in all the odd musical misfits and gathered them together for a party of their own, like good friends.

A careful listener may uncover the obvious trend on this record: almost every song on the Illinois album has a counterpart on the outtakes. Carl Sandburg arm-wrestles Saul Bellow. The aliens landing near Highland salute Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. The loneliness of “Casimir Pulaski Day” deepens even further in the foreboding soundtrack to “Pittsfield.” At its best, The Avalanche is an exercise in form, revealing the working habits of one of the most productive songwriters today. As an illustration, the avalanche refers to the snow and rubble that falls off the side of a mountain, or, in this case, the musical debris generously chucked from an abundant epic. It’s unlikely you’ll find a mountain in the Prairie State so the metaphor will have to do.

© sufjan.com

Review

Less essential than its ‘mother’ album, yet still a great addition. Rich, full compositions and little, intimate songs, including the wonderful Chicago in no less than three (!) different versions. Even more to enjoy!

Songs

All songs written by Sufjan Stevens.

  • The Avalanche
  • Dear Mr Supercomputer
  • Adlai Stevenson
  • The Vivian Girls Are Visited In the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies
  • Chicago (acoustic version)
  • The Henney Buggy Band
  • Saul Bellow 02:53
  • Carlyle Lake
  • Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair
  • The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)
  • Kaskaskia River
  • Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version)
  • Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne
  • No Man’s Land
  • The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake
  • The Pick-up
  • The Perpetual Self, or ‘What Would Saul Alinsky Do?’
  • For Clyde Tombaugh
  • Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder version)
  • Pittsfield
  • The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo)
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois - Tour 2006 (pitchfork.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois – Tour 2006

In closing

If ever required listening was applicable it is with this album. Listen to Illinois, at least once in your life!

What’s your opinion on Illinois? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Sufjan Stevens releases his beautiful and moving Illinois. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.