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Prairie State Parade

 

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

Asthmatic Kitty, 2005

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: July 8, 2005

By Peter Landwehr

The idea of composing an album dedicated to a single state and its sundry qualities elicits images of songs for children filled with an overriding sense of cloying patriotic sappiness, the sort of thing you find on the shelf next to paperweights in the shape of the U.S. flag. Michigan, the album that launched Sufjan Stevens's daunting "Fifty States" project in 2003, won over critics precisely because it avoided this kind of banal sentimentalism. Despite occasionally obtuse lyrics, Stevens created a portrait that captured both the sadness of Michigan's industrial decline and the artist's love of his home state, using Philip Glass-esque jazzy orchestral arrangements and hushed vocals. But can Stevens maintain this level of innovation? Can he manage to create a unique sentiment for each state and not get bogged down in repetitiveness?

The answers provided by Illinois, the follow-up to last year's Seven Swans (and Michigan's thematic descendent) is a definitive "Yes." On the new album, Stevens has broadened his musical stylings with a high falsetto and string quartet, and makes better use of background vocals throughout. (Mostly provided by "The Illinoisemaker Choir" -- Jennifer Hoover, Tara McDonnell, Beccy Lock, Katrina Kerns and Tom Eaton.) The combination gives the album a more cohesive feel than Michigan; the quartet and chorus provide a smooth contrast with the bounciness of the other instruments. Lyrically, Stevens favors rhymes and trivia more here than on his previous work ("Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator"; "I'm not afraid of Nichols Park / I ride the train and I ride it after dark"; and "From Paris, incentive / Like Cream of Wheat invented" being choice examples). And even in the album's darker moments, Stevens never lapses into the peaks of despondency that he climbed on Michigan. "Chicago" comes across as an ecstatically sad song about freedom at the end of love, the emotional wallop augmented by drums, rolling strings and electric guitar plucks. On "Casimir Pulaski Day," it's hard to be entirely torn up by acoustic guitar and concern over a loved one when a character's condition is quaintly referred to as "cancer of the bone" in order to better fit the rhyme; the ambient chill of "The Seer's Tower" is brief, and morphs rapidly from high moans into the playful handclaps of "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders."

In short, Illinois is simply a more uplifting state than Michigan. Where the latter wallows in sorrow, the former rolls with the punches and enjoys itself. Instead of the mournfulness of Michigan's "Upper Peninsula," there's the folk-rapping trivia of "Decatur," the electric-guitar riffage of "The Man From Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" (something that until this point would be thought entirely foreign to Stevens's style) and the sheer exuberance exhibited on "Come on! Feel The Illinoise!" While Michigan had high-spirited songs about a state on the wane, Illinois is a continuously upbeat montage peppered with sad moments. At its worst, one can complain that Stevens has too much self-satisfied fun for the benefit of random facts: "One last 'Woo-hoo!' For The Pullman" is indeed just that -- a "Woo-hoo!" added to the end of the handclaps of the previous track. But if the album feels less personally tied to Illinois than Michigan was to Michigan, the cost is worth paying: The style and overall sentiment of the new album are more sophisticated than those of its predecessor, making it easy to look forward to Stevens's future state-themed releases.

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