This is my first review. Please comment, critique and rate because I’d like to improve and write more.
Illinoise (as this album is referred to, to save time and space) is Sufjan Stevens’ second album in his ridiculously ambitious project of writing one cd for each of the 50 states in the United States. The first, 2003’s Greetings from Michigan, was well received by indie critics and fans all over. For this project, Sufjan conducts huge amounts of research on the state (Michigan was his home state, so he started easy.) He then finds topics about which he can write songs, either directly or loosely tied to the state. Religious elements are often included, but in a subtle, non-offending way. Besides these two state cds, he has released two other indie pop albums, Seven Swans and A Sun Came!, as well as an electronic experiment called Enjoy Your Rabbit.
This album is released on Asthmatic Kitty. Due to copyright laws, Marvel Comics ordered that the album art be changed due to the small superman flying over Chicago on the cover. The first order of printed cds, as well as the pre-release versions have the Superman, any later printings will have different cover art, and will be released in August 2005.
Sufjan Stevens – Wrote, recorded, engineered, and produced the entire album. He also plays acoustic/electric guitar, electric bass, piano, Wurlitzer, drum kit, oboe, alto saxophone, flute, oboe, banjo, accordion, recorders, keyboard, organ, and various percussive instruments
Drums - Craig Montoro
Backing Vocals - Katrina Kerns, Shara Worden, Matt Morgan, Daniel Smith, Elin Smith, and Illinoisemaker Choir
String Quartet – Rob Moose, Julianne Carney, Marla Hansen, and Maria Bella Jeffers
Sufjan Stevens has got to be crazy. He has proclaimed that he is going to write one album for each of the 50 states in America. At one album per year, he’ll be going until 2053! Plus, instead of writing another state album, he threw in the beautiful Seven Swans last year. Some (including the artist himself) say it’s just a big marketing ploy. But while it is great for marketing, he claims to be serious about it as well, and is very excited about each and every upcoming album. I, for one, hope that he can do it.
Illinoise is very similar in musical content to Greetings from Michigan. Huge arrangements with choir, woodwinds, brass and strings are found across the entire album. But, in the last two years, his arranging skills have improved, without a doubt. On Michigan, the listener is sometimes overwhelmed with layer upon layer of melodic content, and sometimes left wanting maybe a little more. This feeling is rarely found on Illinoise. Sufjan seems to have found a great feel for his writing, and is has made a near perfect album. I wonder how his albums would sound if he had a producer to help him perfect the arrangements, but at this point, it is not necessary.
He has some very fun, upbeat songs on this album. The first thing my mom said when she heard the title track was, “This sounds like Charlie Brown." And it is a sort of Charlie Brown Theme type piano line that starts this fun pop song. Other fun uptempo songs include “Chicago", “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts", and “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders." He even busts out the electric for “The Tallest Man."
But in my opinion, Sufjan’s writing is at its absolute best on the more stripped down acoustic, ballad type songs, like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Written from a more empathetic view, it details some of the childhood of this serial killer, as well as touches on the way he killed 27 people, mostly young boys. It is haunting, but absolutely beautiful. “Casimir Pulaski Day" touches on the death of a friend from bone cancer, and having recently lost a friend to cancer, it makes me cry nearly every time. These songs include mostly acoustic guitar and banjo, and it fits perfectly with the subject matter. If you like these types of songs, I highly recommend Seven Swans, which is predominately songs of this type.
“Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out To Get Us!" is the best arranged song on the album. He employs full use of the chorus, strings, brass, and uses them to make a gorgeous song about a childhood friendship (I think.) To me, it is the highlight of the album, because of the way that he is able to coordinate so much to make such a beautiful sound.
If one looks at the tracklist, Sufjan obviously not take this too seriously. He pokes fun at himself and the obscene ambitiousness of everything with the long, comical song titles and short, goofy reprises. The album is a chore to listen to at 74 minutes, and he knows it. But, there is no where to cut down time from this album. There is no filler. Every track has a purpose, and fulfills it. This is the best album of 2005, without a doubt. I left the rating at 4.5 because I can imagine Sufjan improving more, and there needs to be room for higher ratings later in his career.