Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yan) Stevens is a musician from Michigan. Last summer he released his fifth album, called “Illinois.” “Illinois” is his second state-themed concept album (2003’s “Michigan” was the first).
Stevens spent four months in isolation during the winter of 2004, reading books, biographies, Carl Sandburg poetry, and Saul Bellow novels in order to better understand the state. Throughout the album, he incorporates historical aspects along with more general observations, “The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain/ We go riding on the abolition grain train/ Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater but Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator.”
A sad piano is accompanied by a distant whistling oboe on the opening track, “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois.” Stevens’ often delicate tenor singing style is accentuated in the simplicity of the song. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” has a similarly simple texture, where he writes empathetically about the infamous Chicago serial killer, saying, “And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him.”
Mood and tempo pick up in “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” as banjo, guitar, and saxophone dance into a small closing applause. A vibraphone dangles and melts into a quartet of strings and drums in the poignant “Chicago.”
The 22 tracks spin on over 73 minutes, a long and grueling battle to the end. Many of the songs are hard to put into context, requiring some digging. Overall, Stevens’ introspective musings pervade a kind of freshness representing his journey through Illinois, permeating outward, unaware of boundaries.