SUFJAN STEVENS Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
Illinois is the second instalment in Sufjan Stevens audacious plan to commemorate every state of his home country with an album. It knits together a dense web of cultural and historical references whilst remaining a work of dazzling originality and breathtaking beauty. Its also, whisper it, quite progressive: whilst it might not be crawling with Mellotrons, its a concept album within a far larger cycle of such things, the double vinyl edition is presented in a triple gatefold sleeve and several of the songs are multi-part epics. (The vinyl issue was delayed, allegedly due to legal tangles surrounding the image of Superman that originally adorned the artwork; tantalisingly, my copy carries a sticker over the offending area, The Velvet Underground & Nico-style.) Theres also a gentle religious undercurrent to the album: its in no way intrusive, but can be followed if the listener is so inclined. Its that rare album that necessitates dedicated study before its mysteries can be truly revealed, something thats non-American listeners especially will require. Fortunately, theres an excellent Wikipedia article on the album that makes the process as painless as possible, Illinois being the kind of cross-referencing cultural work that websites ideally placed to unlock. Yet this is no dry, academic exercise: its shot through with love and grief, humour and heartache, a living, breathing thing of utter loveliness that charms and surprises at every turn.
Stevens great musical trick is to take the drama, majesty and Technicolor glamour of stage and screen and recreate it in chamber-sized arrangements the sleeve notes that many of the quiet parts were recorded in his apartment. Sufjan himself plays much of the music, his 20-strong repertoire including such non-rock n roll instrumentation as oboe, saxophone, flute, banjo, glockenspiel, vibraphone, accordion, recorders and church organ. One minute your ears are being tickled by the delicious strange-time salsa of Come On Feel The Illinoise! Part I: The Worlds Columbian Exposition, the next youre surrounded by the mournful, ghostly sob of John Wayne Gacy, Jr, which sensitively handles its serial killer subject.
Its impossible to resist grinning along to the banjo-plucking bizarreness of Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Step Mother!, or not feel shivers down the spine on encountering the sweeping majesty of Chicago. For those whod argue that Stevens is little more than a snake-oil salesman in possession of a particularly well-thumbed encyclopaedia, Casimir Pulaski Day is a gently heartrending account of young love, early death and shaken faith. The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts flits seamlessly between bouncy indie guitar rock and exquisitely ornate chamber pop, carrying after it a coda that suggests, as do many of the albums instrumental interludes (often carrying titles that are longer than the songs themselves) a thrift store Phillip Glass. It culminates with the gorgeous modern mountain music of The Avalanche, during which theres a moment, when he sings the lines I took a train from Virginia/To Illinois, my home that the whole album suddenly becomes something even greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Illinois is no gimmick, its a labour of love, a Great American Album, and one of my favourite records of 2005.