Sufjan Stevens: Come on Feel the Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005)

by Jason

Sufjan IllinoiseEpic! That is only one of the words that can even slightly describe the scope and grandeur of Sufjan Stevens’ new release Come on Feel the Illinoise. Along with James McAuster, Craig Montoro, Katrina Kerns, Shara Worden, Matthew Morgan, Daniel Smith, Elin Smith, The Illinoisemaker Choir, and a String Quartet, Sufjan Stevens composes complex songs while also contributing his own proficiency on multiple instruments. Like his Michigan release, this second installment in the grand states series focuses on Sufjan‘s experiences and thoughts on the state of Illinois. With 22 tracks and utterly epic names for the songs, Sufjan has produced an incredibly lovely disc that really outdoes his previous work.

“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” starts the listener on this new epic journey. The track begins with echoing piano that is sweet and simple, inviting the listener in. Then, recorders play lovingly over the ivory. The vocals are what one would expect from Sufjan: enigmatic, charismatic, and inviting. From the very first track, you instantly know that you have happened upon a masterpiece. If it’s possible, Sufjan has matured since Michigan and his story-telling ability has progressed. Here, an experience involving the war in Lebanon, but I am not entirely sure how to take the cryptic lyrics here. “UFO” then flows into “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!’” This track is a short track that is entirely instrumental. There are beautiful voices, recorder, acoustic guitar, piano, and drums. It has a marching sort of feel and is brilliant.

“Come on Feel the Illinoise! Part 1: The World’s Columbian Exposition” begins with Sufjan’s signature staccato composition. The piano is energetic and Sufjan’s voice perfect. There seems to be homage to Chicago’s progress throughout the decades, but not without some criticism. The feel of the song changes a bit with some electric guitar and strings when there is a transition to “Part 2: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream.” Some brass comes into the mix along with tambourine. The lyrics in this song just catch the ear and attention of the listener. A few of my favorites are “And we laughed the beatitudes of a thousand lines” and “Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level.” His songs surely are songs to ponder and think about. Sufjan just doesn’t come out and tell the story in a straightforward fashion but is poetic and allows the listener the time to cogitate on his meanings.

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a soft acoustic and piano song about a serial killer from Chicago. The song is disturbing and tells his story in a sorrowful manner. What is striking about the song is the last verse.

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

It’s a rare person that can admit that he has things dark and deep that others would find horrible. What a great, great song. “Jacksonville” begins with beautiful violin and moves into piano and Sufjan’s signature banjo. There are sprinklings of civil rights movement in the song and I have tried to locate some sort of idea of what he is speaking of here, but have come up dry.

“A Short Reprise for Mary Todd” comes next and is a short instrumental piece that floats on heavy and light strings. “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother” has a sound of a more complex version of a song he might have included on Seven Swans. Banjo is the primary instrument in this song and the lyrics are steeped in history. If you are a US history buff, you will certainly love this disc for its witty comments on history. “Chicago” is an complexly arranged track that begins with strings and chords. I had only heard this song live with just a banjo but this version is just beautiful and shows Sufjan’s ability to share his experiences with his listeners. It is apparent that his experiences with this city really shaped his youth. The end of the disc is soft keys and beautiful angelic voices.

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is an acoustic tune akin to Seven Swans. Again, this song seems very personal and about a love that Sufjan had at one point in his life. The person that he loves dies of a kind of bone cancer and the song is just emotively impacting. All the lines in this song are strong, good, and, frankly, just perfect. Ok, as a critic, I am struggling with how to communicate what is going on in this disc to you, the reader. There are no words that can truly express it. This is one of my favorite tracks on the disc. “To the Workers of the Rockford River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament” is an instrumental piece that is soothing and sorrowful with classical intonations. There is a bit of Spanish style horn, perfect drum accents, piano, and what might be a glockenspiel. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” has a mock, rock feel to it with dissonant chords that eventually float into acoustic guitar. The brass work on this song is gorgeous. The choir on this track plays a great foil against the odd electric guitar work.

“Prairie Fire that Wanders About” begins with organ and xylophone. This song almost feels like it has a hymn type structure to it. This is a short tune that is fanciful and has a sort of stream of consciousness feel to it. “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze” is another one of the great instrumental short interludes on this disc. This has an ambient feel to it, with ride and keys. It lasts a whole 19 seconds, but I like it. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” has a peaceful beginning with recorder, acoustic guitar, and piano. The arrangements on this song are beautiful and really compliment the story Sufjan is telling about a boyhood incident. “They are Night Zombies!! They are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Run for Your Lives!! AHHHHHH!” has got to be the track with my favorite title. The track has groovy base, trip-hop drums and slick organ. The violins add a wistful delight to the song and really bring depth amidst the chorus of singers. This is about those who are famous from Illinois who have died. There are also personal touches here about dying and being forgotten, which, I doubt Sufjan will ever be forgotten with this incredible musical legacy he is leaving behind.

“Let’s Hear that String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard it All the Way Out in Bushnell” is a short violin piece that must be a shake toward the site of Cornerstone Festival. This is followed by “In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth” is another short interlude of voices and organ that is beautiful and I wished it would have lasted longer. “The Seer’s Tower” has a primarily piano accompaniment and possibly relates a disturbing personal experience of Sufjan’s with the Sear’s Tower as the center of the imagery. It’s a haunting tune that is wistful and lovely. “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders: Part 1 The Great Frontier” is a song with that wonderful Sufjan arrangement again with horns, drums, recorders, and what may be keys in there somewhere with Glockenspiel or Xylophone. The song seems to center around the great people of Illinois from history and also the commerce that arose in that state throughout the 20th century. Chicago was the commerce center for investments in farm goods and produce as well as the center for Sears Co. This flows into “Part II Come to Me Only With Playthings Now.” There is a great reference to the curse on the Chicago Cubs as well as references to other great sports teams from Illinois such as The Bulls. “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” is another brief interlude with fantastic Horn and a bit of an underlying drone. Obviously this is a tribute to some of the greats in Jazz. The final cut on the album is “Out of Egypt, in the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run.” This is a gorgeous instrumental with piano and a mixture of instruments that seems to make a wall of sound. This is a perfect ending to this epic album and really ushers the listener out of the grand adventure that Sufjan has just lead him/her through.

This album is just epic. Sufjan obviously shot the moon with this album and hit his mark. With the second installment of the states series, Sufjan has proven his ability to grow and compose gorgeous, moving songs that are intimate, intelligent and personal. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

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