History. War. Sexuality. Love. Grief. Aliens? Zombies? Killer clowns? How can an album combine those topics in a genuine, beautiful, and concise way? They all seem unrelated and ridiculous! Surprisingly, a little folk singer from Detroit named Sufjan Stevens held a vision in 2005 that would shake the indie music world into pieces.
Earlier in his career, Stevens was not a popular musician with the masses, but he was huge with the critics. His albums, “Michigan” and “Seven Swans,” received cult status with indie fans, as well as practically unanimous praise from critics. With his soft spoken presentation, as well as his cryptic and haunting lyrics, he was on his way to becoming the next Elliot Smith or Bruce Springsteen singer-songwriter type.
In terms of his career now, he seems to be more popular with masses and critics than he ever has been before. His most recent breakthrough in the music industry was his 2018 Oscar nomination for his original song, “Mystery of Love,” for the film “Call Me by Your Name.” Though he ended up losing the award, the song still remains his most popular on almost every music streaming service. However, this big breakthrough didn’t start with this song, it started with the singer-songwriter’s 2005 album, titled “Illinois.”
Holding an impressive hour and 14 minute runtime, this album is a whole commitment of one’s attention and passion for music to really understand what makes this album so magnificent. For starters, this album received unreal levels of critical acclaim. With the current metacritic score clocking in at 90, one can see how publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, and even Rolling Stone rated this incredibly highly.
However, that is enough about what other people think of the album? I mean, this is my review after all. What do I think of the album? Yeah, it REALLY is as good as everybody else says.
One of the defining factors of “Illinois” is the way it sets up the world the album takes place in. Considering Stevens made this album to be a semi-historical piece about the state of Illinois, he made sure that every song actually “felt” like how it feels to live in Illinois.
The opening track, “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois,” is a perfect example of this trait. This track perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the great state all through the use of sound. The flutes on this track sound like the summer breeze that engulfs the Illinois suburbs, as the ebb and flow over the wheat fields. It’s truly extraordinary stuff.
Another track to capture the Illinois atmosphere through sound is the bombastic and grand “Chicago,” a song that almost serves as the centerpiece of the album, just like how the titular city acts as a metaphorical centerpoint of the state itself.
The marching drums and horn section on this song almost sound like a bus or van traveling on an open highway with cars flying past around it. The way this track builds as it goes on almost gives the sense that we start off with a developing small city, to the huge city we know as Chicago today. I advise you, that the next time you are traveling to Chicago by any means of transport, put this song on as you enter the city. It is truly an unforgettable and magical experience.
One of the strongest factors in any singer-songwriter based album is how well the lyrics are written. With this album, Stevens establishes himself as a big league player as one of the best lyricists of all time.
The coolest thing that Stevens does on this album is to use the history of Illinois and use it as a metaphor of his own life or feelings. For example, the song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” is truly a highlight of this trait.
The song goes through the life of Illinois’ most infamous serial killer of the same name. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that ANYONE in the world that compares themselves to Gacy is a pure psychopath that deserves to be locked away. However, with the closing lyrics, Stevens’ true intentions of the song truly come into play.
“And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid,” Stevens sings.
With this lyric, Stevens compares Gacy’s awful secrets of being a killer, to how he hides his own secrets within himself. It is truly a haunting realization for the listener as well, considering that everyone has their secrets that they have hidden away, whether it is physical or psychological. If you can get past the horrid subject material on this track, you can truly find some very thought provoking and informative subtext about human nature.
Another one of the best lyrical songs on this album has to be the poetic and brutally tragic “The Seer’s Tower.” Now, I have been listening to this song for many years, as it is one of my favorite songs on the entire album. However, I have yet to find an explanation as to what the lyrics of this song really mean. Nonetheless, the lyrics don’t need to make sense to be effective, as some of the lines that Stevens sings on this track are devastating enough to make a grown man cry.
“Still I go to the deepest grave, where I go to sleep alone,” Stevens sings.
This lyric as the closing line of the song, was a perfect decision on Stevens’ part, and it really shows that he knows how to end a song with an emotional gut punch. Whenever I listen to this song, and Stevens reaches that high note to sing the word “alone,” it truly brings a tear to my eye how damaged and alone he sounds. Tying back to what I said earlier about the album capturing the Illinois atmosphere, this song almost feels as though I am standing atop The Sears (now Willis) Tower, and looking off into the Chicago skyline, and just taking in the beautiful view.
I could go on about this album for eight more pages, but I don’t want to stress my editors out. Out of all the albums I have reviewed up to this point, this is the most enthusiastic I have ever been to share an album with you all.
Not only do I believe that this is the best Sufjan Stevens album, but I also believe that this is one of the best albums ever made. Period. Not only is Stevens giving an educational look onto the history of Illinois, he is also providing a very personal and deep look into his own emotions, fears, and insecurities to the most detailed level.
This is truly a life changing album that I will never get tired of, and I hope it does the same for you. Stevens really proved himself to be one of the most unique and ambitious talents of the 21st Century with this album, and hopefully he continues to keep making indie music a genre worth remembering.