Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, the Visionary Indie Album

After a silly reissue, thoughts on Sufjan Stevens’ lasting masterpiece
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They’re putting out a reissue of Illinois and my editor asked me to write about it. You don’t need it, obviously. They’ve replaced the original Superman on the cover—scotched from most versions for copyright issues—with some other Spandexed gent called “Blue Marvel,” apparently, I guess to riff on Marvel/DC competition. Yeesh, I have a hard enough time trying to avoid all this superhero nonsense just walking around the block; now I have to get it from indie rock too?

So yeah, it’s a cheap way to put old product back into circulation. And yet, like it or not, it remains one of the few indie albums to sustain a sophisticated sense of instrumental color toward a genuinely Original Worldview, as it were. We can all mock the supposed tweeness. We can all mock the whimsy. I know I did. I hated Sufjan Stevens at the time as much as I hated every other sensitive indie guy at the time—Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, Will Oldham—who whispered instead of sung and had the gall to orchestrate their dithering. Sufjan in particular, what with his album covers (which seemed like ironic corny hipsterisms) and long song titles with tweeness that’d make Wes Anderson gag, seemed like Boho Enemy #1.

Further listening and a softening of high school cynicism has confirmed for me that he may’ve been the one lasting thing to happen to indie rock in the last 20 years. It’s funny: though everyone went nuts for Illinois at the time, I’ve now come across several self-described indie fans who’ve never heard it. People forget about most indie albums after a few years, of course—nobody ever accused indie fans of caring about aesthetic quality—but this seems like the one that lasts; the visionary one. And even if you don’t buy that, you’ll have to admit: there’s such color! And isn’t that one of the most thrilling things about, umm, listening to music in the first place?

Anyway, here are some randomly-assembled thoughts on a great album that you can discard or bear in mind if you feel like giving it another listen. Especially if the change of seasons gets you all verklempt.

  1. “Chicago” could be taken as an example of the most lovable and the most annoying things about Sufjan Stevens. On the one hand, he sings in the kind of malnourished oh-so-very-earnest, barely-above-a-whisper voice that still generally irritates the hell out of me. Plus his compositions generally consist of very short instrumental phrases arranged in repeating patterns, and he’s never learned how to write a bridge. And yet on the other hand, the hopeful, visionary sweep of his arrangement epitomizes the spirit that pop music in general is usually starved for. And though the earnestness of his voice obviously grates on some people, his seems to have a point: it’s like by taking on a voice that’s barely above a whisper, he really is trying to evoke a world of the “little people.” In sum, there is in fact no affectation to Sufjan Stevens, no melodramatic pose. He enunciates every word clearly, and when he goes high, there’s a real feeling of religious yearning to it.
  2. For every picture of the pathetic (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”; “Casimir Pulaski Day”; “The Seer’s Tower”), you get a contrast to the grander, more majestic sides of Americana without it seeming ungainly.
  3. Sufjan rarely writes about women except through the perspective of men, which is obviously an affliction shared by many of even our most talented songwriters—even bohemians who are supposed to know better.
  4. The Steve Reich analogies may be lazy (have y’all heard Music in Twelve Parts?), but in Sufjan’s case it happens to be accurate: classical American minimalism has obviously been incredibly influential on pop music in general the last 40+ years, but of all the first-wavers Reich really did have the most colorful instrumental palette and was the most hopeful. But it’s not just Sufjan’s eclectic arrangements: for me at least, Illinois in particular shares Reich’s optimistic ‘60s sensibility that was nostalgic for a kind of Midwestern High Modernist feeling; an expansive America seen in a post-war city skyline. That kinda thing.
  5. Further to the above, it’s interesting to note Sufjan’s vision of Superman—who, as we all know, is America—in “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” in comparison with the melancholic version of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” or Five for Fighting’s self-pitying “Superman”. Take Sufjan’s charging version as a reassuring sign of hope for America, however tentative it may be. Rarely does buzzing lo-fi guitar sound so happy.
  6. That line in “Casimir Pulaski Day” where the light “pressed up against your shoulder blade” is unintentionally grotesque, and I hate it.
  7. Where Michigan made it clear (or should’ve) that Sufjan was indeed someone who’s thought very seriously about civic ideals, religion, loneliness, and American history in culture in general, it’s also somewhat bleak, and the subsequent Seven Swans got outright apocalyptic, albeit in its own quiet and aching way. By contrast, Illinois is a straight-up wonderfully colorful and exhilarating work—note the more spring/summer imagery of air and water and buzzing insects in “Predatory Wasp” or “Man of Metropolis”, compared to the wintry Michigan—that’s ultimately just as serious.
  8. The many instrumental fragments that get their own tracks, while never worth seeking out on their own, are also never anything less than pleasant, and they do occasionally even help the flow between subjects, particularly the funeral trumpet of the “Rockford Valley” fragment leading out of the dead teenage lover in “Casimir Pulaski Day”. They’re also a good demonstration of the fact that minimalist classical music is basically rock music without vocals.
  9. In case any curious parties are interested in the Avalanche album of Illinois demos and outtakes, I’d recommend downloading “Adlai Stephenson”, “Saul Bellow”, “No Man’s Land”, and “Pittsfield” and skipping the rest. There, I just saved you an hour—you’re welcome.
  10. The album does ebb off after “Predatory Wasp”, and indeed it may be a bit too long of an ebb, especially since said ebb comprises the album’s one expendable actual-song (“The Seer’s Tower”). But it’s still a very pleasant ebbing-off, with the highlights being the vaguely disco-y string figures in “Night Zombies!!”, the first minute of “Tallest Man” (though the track’s obviously too long, trying to do the same thing “Feel the Illinoise!” did but not nearly as successful), and the closing track’s graceful, humble lift to the heavens, which is the “stand up and thank her” sentiment fully-realized.
  11. Speaking of “Predatory Wasp”, that’s the album’s most under-discussed track, and I’m not sure why. What a gorgeous piece of brotherly love that is, particularly the “we were in love” round-like singalong with the speckling wind instruments. It’s my favorite track on the album, save the flat-out perfect “Decatur”.
  12. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” and “Jacksonville” are probably the album’s two best examples of the quality of—here’s that phrase again—tone color that Sufjan manages to get out of these arrangements. I mean, just listen to them: the airy string parts, the slippery electric guitar licks, the organ and crystal-sounding layering in the second part of “Illinoise” in particular. (Never has a line as potentially insufferable as “I cried myself to sleep last night” sounded so heartening.) And though the chord changes in “Illinoise” take for-goddamn-ever, the way he builds and relieves harmonic tension in that song, texture thickening and thinning with strings breaking into little parade-style coronations, is evocative of a kind of half-dreamed bleary Americana accentuated by all the sounds themselves: hopeful backing vocals and vibraphone resonance and so much more.
  13. For those of us who do still lament Sufjan’s departure from the style of eclectic arrangements on his mid-‘00s albums, I feel necessary to mention what might end up being the man’s last outright triumph in that style, that being his radiant version of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” for the I’m Not There soundtrack. Check it out.
  14. Sometimes I find the general motion of “Casimir Pulaski Day” sort of distractingly jaunty, of all things, which is weird considering the subject matter. And yet that can add another level of poignancy, like it’s being sung around a campfire years later as a modest proposal to understand whatever quiet agony has remained.
  15. The last music to so earnestly cross a sense of fantastical history with sophisticated instrumental texture was…err, the progressive rock of the early ‘70s. That stuff even today hasn’t quite been granted its proper legitimacy by the taste arbiters; I hope Illinois doesn’t suffer the same fate in the long run.
  16. This album and Kanye’s Late Registration, released less than two months from each other, can tie for best album of the aughts. I wish I’d seen it at the time.