The concept album should always be approached with caution. Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise comes wrapped up in the most ambitious, and, perhaps, foolhardy concept since Rick Wakeman bloatedly approached the six wives of Henry VIII in 1973 (as if the ladies in question hadn’t suffered enough during their brief span on this earth). Illinoise is Stevens’ second album as part of his 50 States project, the first having been Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State.
Described as a twenty-two track tone poem tackling “dusty prairies, steel factories and two hundred years of history”, Illinoise wins points for audacity and daring before its first notes chime in.
William F. Buckley, the American conservative founder of The National Review, once commented that he’d rather be governed by the first hundred names in the phonebook rather than by the faculty of Harvard University, while Little Richard, the self proclaimed founder of rock n’ roll, said “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom”. Anti-intellectualism has been at the heart of American political and musical life arguably forever. American history, music, and a penchant for the intellectual then, could be reasonably thought of as being as welcome together on a disc as a porn star at a bishop’s conference (don’t go there…).
Stevens though is a rare talent. He’s a gifted story-teller with a self-taught genius for writing seemingly light-weight infectious pop songs that, for those willing to listen at a deeper level, also have substance. The first thing to point out is that it’s a damn good album to listen to. There are melodies and hooks a plenty that, in the normal run of things, would by dint of their accomplishment preclude any intelligent lyric writing. If you don’t like introspective song-writers, the horn sections alone on Illinoise will win you over.
The lyric writing though is weighty, intelligent and playful. It’s a style that holds more in common with Dave Eggers and his McSweeney‘s school of modern American fiction, than Little Richard. Overblown titles such as Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the dirt from my sandals as I run, or To The Workers of The Rock River Valley Region, I have an idea concerning your predicament, and it involves an inner tube, bath mats, and 21 able-bodied men, and the unfeasibly long The Black Hawk War…[curtailed here for legibility*] point to both the importance of narrative on the album, and at the same time a willingness to play with form, convention, and all in a light-hearted way. It’s pretencious at times, but the titles are telling you that Stevens is well aware of that, and what the heck!
Musically it’s astounding. Thirty different instruments jockey for space and hooks. There are hints of the lo-fi Americana of Iron and Wine, mixed with the Beatles. A melodic phrase from the Cure appears in a completely new context in Come on feel the Illinoise, taking the song elsewhere. There are rock-out guitars and a drum beat wrestled from the inept hands of Lenny Kravitz [and Feargal Sharkey for that matter] employed on the magnificent surging chorus of The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts, that meets the melancholic brass of the almost whispered verse. Clark Kent and Superman explained musically.
Taken as a whole, both on a narrative and musical level, it’s an intriguing engagement with the best and worst of the American dream. One of the most beautiful songs you’re likely to hear this year is the simply entitled John Wayne Gacy, Jr., a piano driven ballad about Illinois’ representative of that modern American anti-hero, the serial killer. It’s beautiful and necessarily unnerving. It blurs lines between victim and victimiser (and will no doubt stir up a controversy as a result), wrapped up in a swooning, swelling melody.
He dressed up like a clown for them,
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
The combination of beauty and the basest violence brings to mind recent Mercury Prize winner Antony and the Jonstons’ Fistful of love.. Pop/Rock music has rarely been open to ambiguity. Sexual innuendo yes, but ambiguity and characterisation no. The songwriting on this album, though, is steeped in it, coming from a literary point of view where angles and perspectives take precedence. Paradoxically there are only so many ways you can look at “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom”
The framework of 50 States is apt, as this is music exploring boundaries, and the paradoxes at the heart of American life that make it simultaneously both the greatest country on the face of the earth, and the most shamefaced. Religion, sex, murder, slavery and emancipation [Illinois was Lincoln’s home state, after all], expansion, progress – the themes of the album are plenty, and yet all is intimately personal. It’s a record that doesn’t lecture, thankfully.
But enough analysis and poking around into the internal workings of this splendid album. Heed the advice of someone who is proud to say that he owns not one Yes or ELP album – treat yourself to a listen of Illinoise. Pop music rarely sounds this good or intelligent.
*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 till they are off our lands!”