Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two Down, Forty-Eight to Go - Sufjan Stevens "Illinois"

Come On Feel the IllinoiseNow is the time for all good men to come to aid of their fifty year old brothers and sisters by letting them know about great albums. You remember them, don’t you?
Albums were the novels of the sixties and seventies, and we used to live for the great ones, which seemed to be in plentiful supply at the time. The good news is that they still are. It’s just that with so many records being made now, and in so many different genres, finding the great ones very challenging. That’s one of the reasons for this blog – to help you find the needles in the haystack.
Sometimes, when I go into a record store like J&R, I look around at the thousands of albums around me and realize that I’ll never get to hear 99% of them. I’ll also be the first to admit that most of them either suck or just wouldn’t appeal to me. But even if that were true of 99% of them (and it isn’t) there would be more albums than I could ever get to know. So stop worrying about whether or not good music exists. It does. Let me help you find some.
The last great album I got was “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens. My initial exposure to him was lukewarm. His covers of the Beatles “I’m Only Sleeping” and of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” were okay, so there was no reason to think I’d like his music. But there was “Illinois”, showing up on all sorts of top ten lists and, well, I caved.
And a good thing, too, because it turns out that it’s his own music that merits our attention. Armed with a fragile voice and what I have to describe as an orchestra with wings (you have to be there) “Illinois” is one of the most tuneful albums I’ve heard in years. It’s supposedly about the state of Illinois (sounds real promising, doesn’t it?), and with an album already out about Michigan, the remaining 48 states are apparently on his to-do list.
The album alternates between the very quiet and the orchestral. with several short musical interludes that unify the record. His whisper of a voice and insistent melodies do the rest.
He starts off very gently - maybe too gently - with “UFO Sighting”. (Since you could mistake the song titles for a lyric sheet, I’ve abbreviated them.) The pace ebbs and flows until it hits a plateau made up of one of the best song sequences on any album:
Jacksonville, where the woozy violin should be irritating, but is hypnotic instead.
Decatur”, about a step mom who deserved better than she got.
Chicago”, which may be the song of the decade.
“Casimir Pulaski Day”, a close second, about teenage love and cancer, which could have been sappy, but due to it’s understated delivery, is devastating instead.
By about now, I need a rest, but Sufjan keeps going. And about the only thing wrong with the remainder of the album is that it suffers slightly in comparison to what came before. And even here, we might disagree (“Predatory Wasp” or “Man of Steel” anyone?), since these songs would be considered high points on lesser albums.
In musical terms, the songs are pretty simple. Is that why they are so powerful? It could be because Sufjan is a master of the telling detail – the harmony on “Chicago”s line “I made a lot of mistakes”, the banjo on “Casimir Pulaski Day” or a dozen others.
I can imagine someone not loving his voice, or finding the orchestrations too busy, but I just can’t see someone disliking it. Give him a try, and maybe he can get around to your state.
Now playing: Sufjan Stevens - Chicago
via FoxyTunes

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