Review Summary: Sufjan Stevens takes on one of the most ambitious projects of not only his career, but also indie music, and manages to draw together such a varied number of influences, styles and emotions that one can't quite help but fall in love with the album.
Ambition, in music just as much as any other art form, is a tricky thing. Too much can lead to pretentious efforts, far above the artist's capability, that ultimately fall embarrassingly flat. Too little, however, and you're looking at a derivative album that will forever be condemned to being labeled as a '1.5' version of the band's previous work. Sufjan Steven's Illinois is, by turns, the most grandiose piece of music attempted in recent memory, but also one of the most humble, and small-scale. This seeming contradiction is what keeps Illinois just on the right side of pretension (well, too much of it) and it's in no danger whatsoever of being boring. Whilst the song titles alone might suggest a goal far too lofty for a simple singer-songwriter to achieve, Sufjan Stevens is, luckily enough, not just a simple singer-songwriter.
At it's most bombastic, one can't help but feel that Illinois is the work of a far larger group of musicians; with it's big-band climaxes, it's multi-layered harmonies and instrumental sections, and it's sheer length, it belies the fact that it's the product of just one man. The first track sets things up quietly, with a pleasing piano motif backing Stevens', by now, predictably superb lyrics. It also introduces the theme of the album, if the title didn't already, which is drawing together all of the folk stories, the monuments and the anecdotal tales of the state of Chicago. Whilst this might, once again, suggest an album of unattainable scope, the first track is simple enough that one might think that Stevens had gone in the opposite direction, and kept things simple, humble and, most surprisingly, very quiet.
But the second track does away with any thoughts of this kind. It's triumphant horn section's fanfare, and boy-scouts style drumming, coupled with the uplifting voices of a Chicago children's choir, announce the arrival of the album proper, and confirm to the listener that, yes, Stevens is actually going to attempt to do all of this, by himself, in one album. And from then on, you're hooked. Stevens manages to craft a lyrical masterpiece out of every single track, but simultaneously shows considerable musical chops and influences, in his tasteful, but still impressive, use of unconventional time signatures, dynamics and instrumental passages. Every single track introduces a different genre, a different instrument, a different texture. It's a constantly rewarding, and compelling, listen, as you always know that should you get bored of the track you're on at the minute, (which is itself unlikely, as the running times here rarely cross the line of self-indulgence) there is something new right around the corner.
The most surprising thing about an album of such broad scope is the fact that it is, arguably, an album made of magnificent moments. Whether it's the jubilant saxophone line in the title track, that's still underpinned with a subtle longing that's reflected in the lyrics, or the disturbing final few lyrics of John Wayne Gacy Jr, or the entirety of the magnificent 'The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!' (and that's one of the shorter titles), even after the overwhelming sensory assault of the first listen, you'll always find those perfectly 'human' moments to return to; comforting needles in the enormous, inviting haystack of the album as a whole.
It's these moments that really set Illinois apart. Whilst a large amount of this review might well have succumbed to ridiculously pretentious prose that would make even Pitchfork blush, there are plenty of other imitators that would deserve equal praise for the technical side of their work. Hell, after Illinois dropped, there were plenty of other similar projects that were, on paper, just as proficient. But they lacked the simple humanity, that makes Illinois such a multi-faceted treat. As many times as there are soaring, Steve Reich indebted instrumental sections to look forward to in Illinois, there will be a moment, much less grandiose, that could reduce the listener to tears if they were in the right mood. It's this schizophrenia that makes the album such a success; it manages to be as perfect a summation of Chicago as a state that one could hope for, and is also the flag-bearer for how indie music should, and would, develop on a technical level in the next few years, but it's also an album brimming to the top with emotions and ambitions, with heartbreaks and disappointments. And that's why Illinois is, in this reviewer's opinion, not only one of the greatest, if not the greatest, indie records of all time, but is also simply one of the best pieces of art to come out of the last decade.