Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 8) – Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois

Moving on from Sabaton’s concept album about the First World War, the eighth entry in this series, takes a detour away from hard rock/metal to an album with a unique folk/soft rock sound by musical wunderkid, Sufjan Stevens. At the age of 30, this talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released his fifth album to universal acclaim and did enough to seal his place in the musical hall of fame. Stevens has been a proponent of the lo-fi movement, eschewing expensive studio production in favour of basic recording equipment; however, unlike many other lo-fi musicians, his songs involve lush, complex orchestrations which gives the music natural depth and layers without the use of studio trickery. Many of his songs also deal with faith and spiritual matters. Illinois is one of my all-time favourite albums across all genres of music.

Sufjan Stevens in concert, wearing his signature wings

Band: Sufjan Stevens

Albums: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE, aka Illinois

Genre: Culture/history/geography

Narrative theme/concept: Stories related to people, places and incidents related to the US state of Illinois

Best songs: Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, Jacksonville, Chicago, Casimir Pulaski Day, The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,

What makes it special: This album is a massive effort, running 74 minutes and featuring 22 tracks (although six of these are just interludes of less than a minute). There’s a fine mix of slow-paced folk music (which would not sound out of place on a Simon and Garfunkel record) and some genuinely melodious and catchy pop songs enhanced by the use of horns, strings and keyboards. In particular, the masterful interplay between horns and strings is a recurring feature of the best songs in the album.

The third song Come On! Feel the Illinoise! is the first example of this musical combination – a catchy bass riff on the piano kicks off the track, which then moves to a horn section, followed by Stevens’ soft vocals delivered over the same piano riff; the horn section returns, but this time synchronized with harmonic backing vocals; soon after, a plaintive trumpet gives company to the backing vocals…and all this happens in just the first one minute! About a third of the way in, we switch to a beautiful musical interlude with the horn section, keyboards and strings together raising the listening experience to blissful levels. I still remember playing the CD for the first time and the goosebumps I got when this song came on.

The fifth song on the album is Jacksonville, a slow tempo song in which the lyrics are beautifully interwoven with a soothing string section and punctuated with a horns section; this instrumental combo synchs with a rousing chorus-chant at the end of the song:

Andrew Jackson, all I’m asking
Show us the wheel and give us the wine
Woohoo! woohoo!
Raise the banner, jackson hammer
Everyone goes to the capitol line
Woohoo! woohoo!

Chicago (the song’s full name is Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!) is perhaps the best known song in the album, having featured on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. It is definitely one of my all-time favourite songs…the music is in turns, stirring and comforting.

This is followed by the simplest of tracks, Casimir Pulaski Day, with just a banjo and guitar accompaniment for the most part and a solitary trumpet from time to time; this is a song about Stevens coming to terms with a friend’s cancer, remembering their times together; plaintive and poignant.

Track no. 12, The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts marks the mid-point of the album. It has a catchy chorus:

“Only a steel man can be a lover
If he had hands to tremble all over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another”

At this point, I usually end up taking a break or returning to favourite songs in the first half, and so I’ve not listened to tracks 13-22 as often, or even when I do, the album is playing in the background and I don’t seem to pay as much attention, as the tracks start to sound similar to each other. Even so, there are enjoyable tracks which I may not be as familiar with but are fun to listen to, such as the quirky The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!, the impossibly named They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh! and the epic 7-minute-long The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders.

Frankly, I couldn’t figure out how most of the lyrics connected back with Illinois, and I have read enough discussion boards of people trying to interpret their meaning. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of the songs, the melody, harmony, composition and orchestration. Overall, this is a tour de force album, the likes of which we may not see from another artist in this lifetime, but is similar in tone and intent to other one-man-band projects like Of Montreal (Kevin Barnes) and My Morning Jacket (Jim James).

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