Album Review: Sufjan Stevens, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise” (2005)

I had never heard of Sufjan Stevens until sometime this fall. I was ready to listen to some new music and asked a few friends for recommendations. Several of my friends on Last.Fm (a music scrobbling site that I frequent) unanimously told me to give Stevens’ music a try. I listened to a few samples before downloading a few of his most popular songs, and after a couple of listens, I was hooked.

Stevens’ mix of lyrically focused songs and beautiful instrumental pieces called to me right from the beginning. His music could be described as somewhat of a mix of indie rock and folk, though all of his songs are filled with various instruments, including banjos, guitar, piano, ukulele (all of which he plays himself), as well as gorgeous vocal harmonies.

Stevens’ fifth album (and the second in his rumored “50 States Project”; an album for each of the 50 states in the U.S.), Come On! Feel The Illinoise continues this perfect formula with songs that reference people, places, and events that occurred in Illinois. And as strange as it sounds, Stevens’ is wonderful enough to make it work.

The album begins with Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois. The song opens with a long instrumental piece of piano and flutes that sets off a relaxing mood. Stevens’ vocals then enter, and we are presented with his hushed voice, singing of how the citizens must have felt or what they may have thought when they believed to have seen UFOs near Highland, Illinois. As with many of the themes on the album, this probably seems like an odd subject for a song, but at 2:09, it works as a beautiful and haunting intro to the album.

Usually, I’m not a fan of long titles (see my review for Fall Out Boy’s album, From Under The Cork Tree), however, Stevens’ titles are clever enough to actually make me smile. For instance, the interlude after the opening track is titled 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 Until They Are off Our Lands!’. Tee hee…I love it. But besides the snarky title, there isn’t much else to the two minute long interlude; trumpets and a harmonizing choir (mostly just “oooh”-ing and “aaah”-ing) provide a nice set up for the next track, but like most of the interludes on the album, it isn’t necessarily needed.

The title track appears next and is the first truly upbeat song on the album. The opening bars sound reminiscent to the opening bars in Linus and Lucy (the song synonymous with the Peanuts cartoon), which lead into more horns and the first verse. The first part of the song deals with our society’s fascination with modernization (“Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?/Oh Columbia!/Amusement or treasure, these optimistic pleasures/Like the Ferris Wheel!”). Then, the song transitions into a completely different tune and melody (titled Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream; Sandburg was a famous novelist from Galesburg, Illinois). The tempo slows down a bit, and the harmonies and violin sound absolutely gorgeous together. Stevens’ closes the song on a thoughtful note with the final lines (“And I cried myself to sleep last night/For the Earth, and materials, they may sound just right to me /Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated/Are you writing from the heart?/Are you writing from the heart?”).

Before hearing of Sufjan Stevens, I think I could safely say I’d never heard a song about a serial killer. And I certainly had never heard a song about one that I would later describe as “beautiful”. But such is the case with John Wayne Gacy, Jr.. Known as the infamous “Killer Clown”, Gacy becomes the subject of Stevens’ appropriately dark and somber song. A subdued melody leads way into a song that first describes the life of Gacy (“His father was a drinker/And his mother cried in bed”) and then his murders (“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”). Somewhere between the frankness of the lyrics and the hushed vocals, this song has become one of my favorites on the album. Stevens somehow makes me feel both disgust and pity for Gacy, and at the same time examine my own self (“And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid”). Not many songwriters could write a song about a serial killer and make it work. Then again, even fewer would think to try.

Though the prior track ends on such a somber note, Jacksonville picks the tempo right back up with a delightful string section and Stevens on the banjo. The track, which is an ode to Jacksonville, Illinois and some of its’ history (including the Underground Railroad, Helen Keller, and Andrew Jackson) is an upbeat and fun song, filled with horns, more banjo and stings, and piano. Another banjo heavy track isDecatur, Or, Round Of Applause For My Stepmother!. Though the song is more about the history of Decatur, the chorus includes the line, “It’s the Great I Am!”, which is an apparent religious reference. Stevens is a Christian (he has even released an album of Christian music which is on my wish list), and most of his songs do include religious references. The line is a bit out of place in the song, but most people probably wouldn’t realize it if it hadn’t been pointed out (as with most of the references in his songs; though Stevens is proud of his faith, he never seems to come off as being the least bit preachy).

Sufjan Stevens crop

Chicago begins with a few quiet bells ringing before a full orchestra starts up. This is one of the songs that originally made me fall in love with Stevens’ music. From the lush string section to the catchy refrain of (“You came to take us /All things go, all things go/To recreate us/All things grow, all things grow/We had our mindset/All things know, all things know/You had to find it/All things go, all things go”), the track is a superb story about self-discovery (“If I was crying/In the van, with my friend/It was for freedom/From myself and from the land/I made a lot of mistakes”).

My favorite song on the album comes early with Casimir Pulaski Day. For those who don’t know (myself included, until hearing this song for the first time), Casimir Pulaski Day is a holiday celebrated in Illinois on the first Monday of every March to commemorate Revolutionary War officer, Casimir Pulaski. However, this song has nothing to do with him, and almost nothing to do with the holiday. The banjos are back (and is pretty much all the song is comprised of) as Stevens tells the story of a friend who eventually dies from leukemia (or “cancer of the bone”) on the holiday. Like with John Wayne Gacy, Jr., Stevens takes a truly somber subject and makes it into an exquisite piece of music. The twangy banjo and Stevens soft vocals sound wonderful together, though the candid lyrics are truly the strength of the song. The beginning of the song mostly deals with the news of hearing of his friend’s disease, but later, Stevens’ tackles the idea of having faith when God is seemingly not answering our prayers (“Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens/…Oh the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/And He takes and He takes and He takes”). And as corny as it seems, I honestly can’t listen to this song some days without tearing up.

Even though we’re about halfway through the album, Stevens hasn’t seem to have lost any steam. The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts is another upbeat track (that includes a first for this album- electric guitar!) that features female vocalists singing the chorus (“Only a steel man can be a lover /If he had hands to tremble all over/We celebrate our sense of each other/We have a lot to give one another”).“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!” is a downtrodden song that reminds me of a rainy day; gentle acoustic guitar and vocals paired with lyrics of a complicated romance (“Oh how I meant to tease him/Oh how I meant no harm/Touching his back with my hand I kiss him/I see the wasp on the length of my arm/…My friend is gone, he ran away/I can tell you, I love him each day/Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged/I can tell you I love him each day”) always leave me with an odd, but still satisfied, feeling.

They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Our Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh! is just as odd as its title suggests. The lyrics consist of references to horror movies, former Presidents, and the rest of the cities in Illinois that Stevens couldn’t figure out a way to write an individual song about (Buda, Caledonia, Secor, Kanakee, etc.). Honestly, I don’t have a clue what this song is truly about and it may be the only actual low part of the album, except the melody is catchy enough to still make it worth listening to. The Seer’s Tower is a play on words derived from the famous Sears Tower in Chicago. The track begins gently, with nothing more than piano, and then fades into the first verse. The song is filled with more religious references (the “tower” is most likely the Tower of Babel or even Heaven; “In the tower above the earth/There is a view that reaches far/Where we see the universe/I see the fire, I see the end” is quite apocalyptic).

The album comes to a close with Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run is a long, and ultimately boring, instrumental track. I won’t say the album ends on a bad note; the combination of the piano, chimes, and flutes are great together, but the piece goes on for too long without going much of anywhere musically. However, it still provides a clean ending to the disc.

Sufjan Stevens’ Come On! Feel The Illinoise! is a wonderful album, filled with alluring melodies, deep lyrical content, and a nice dose of fun and humor thrown in for good measure. Though I hadn’t even heard of Stevens’ or his music at this time last year, I’m more than pleased with my first glimpse of his genius, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of his work if it’s even close to how great this album is.

Rating: 5_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
2. 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 Gonna Have To Leave Now, Or, ‘I Have Fought The Big Knives And Will Continue To Fight…
3. Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition/Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream
4. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
5. Jacksonville
6. A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons
7. Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!
8. One Last ‘Whoo-Hoo!’ For The Pullman
9. Chicago
10. Casimir Pulaski Day
11. To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament
12. The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
13. Prairie Fire That Wanders About
14. A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze
15. The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!
16. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!
17. Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All The Way Out In Bushnell
18. In This Temple As In The Hearts Of Man For Whom He Saved The Earth
19. The Seer’s Tower
20. The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders: Part I: The Great Frontier/Part II: Come To Me Only With Playthings Now
21. Riffs And Variations On A Single Note For Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, And The King Of Swing, To Name A Few
22. Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run

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