Explaining how he approaches his 50 states project, Sufjan Stevens cited "an emotional landscape within" as the mechanism by which he keeps his songs more focused on matters of the spirit than on more scholarly tangents like the dual abstract/concrete nature of place. This response frames Illinois
perfectly: song cycles grounded in literary preoccupations of setting and history confine their gaze to their narrators' inner emotional landscape. Rather than using localities as a means of depicting different introspective episodes, however, Stevens uses narrative perspective to reset his songs in a consciously removed, stylized world that he posits as a model for human community, propelling meek musings into whole-hog populist anthems. He radically conflates the sophisticated and the naive while maintaining a social thrust, both textually and sonically -- and he does so with such skill, ambition and commercial and critical success that Illinois
cannot be ignored, even by those who might find it exhausting, middling or innocuous.
At 22 tracks and 70-plus minutes, Stevens's second State Album is a microcosm of his grandiose vision -- and the problems existent thus far in his oeuvre. What begins as the exploration of an aesthetic via storytelling swells into a series of directives and statements of purpose, all the while remaining blind to its ironies and central tension.
Stevens establishes a consistent, versatile narrative scheme on Illinois: sensitive, finely aware characters engage their surroundings in search of truth and value, only to find their ideals shattered by the world's depravity. Paradise is lost when they learn first hand that the apple was eaten long ago; with this realization, the quest for redemption begins. These events transpire with Stevens paying close attention to his subjects' emotional workings; they only fire up their intellectual faculties as a means of enlivening experience and, ultimately, increasing their own emotional intensity. "Come on Feel the Illinoise!", the first song on the album that stands comfortably on its own, casts the heart as the seat of morality ("Even in his heart the devil has to know the water level"), and this sentimental sentiment lingers over the hour of music that follows.
Stevens diverts from simply presenting attitudes and pondering the questions they raise, exhorting the listener and tying his packages up with frilly moral ribbons and a forced closure. "Illinoise!" concludes with a chorus of women acting as the ghost of Carl Sandburg and posing a rhetorical question: "Are you writing from the heart?" They repeat this line a number of times until its role in the narrative structure is subordinate to its role as an appeal to the listener; the song's assertion of the heart's stranglehold on virtue furthers its conclusion's didactic tone. "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders", the album's last track with vocals, offers a striking parallel -- its closing line, "Celebrate the new. Celebrate the few. It can only start with you," seems as if it's intended to provide impetus for the listener to change the world once the record ends. Meanwhile, "Chicago" and "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" stop just short of doing the same, chronicling encounters with disillusionment in their verses ("If I was crying in the van with my friend / It was for freedom"; "Trouble falls in my home") and stepping aside to offer maxims for coping ("All things grow") and to extol the values of community ("We celebrate our sense of each other") in their choruses. These character breaks upset the artistic distance that otherwise prevents the songs from being read as angsty navel-gazing, naive emoting or spineless sentimentality, and give cause for questioning the validity of Stevens's aesthetic.
By immersing himself so fully in a world in which even the Prince of Darkness has honest, moral feelings, Stevens undercuts his efforts to confront sin and ugliness and further suggests that his songs may actually be less like short stories and more like tracts -- gentle, beautifully rendered tracts, to be sure, but nevertheless rife with imperatives. In "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", for instance, he attempts to identify himself as a sinner, recounting the titular serial killer's deeds and then admitting, "and in my best behaviour I am really just like him." Held against his description of Gacy, however, this is a null confession, as Stevens paints the murders as graceful, delicate acts devoid of messy consequences: "He took off all their clothes for them... quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth." He never convinces us of Gacy's guilt, so he can't convince us of his own guilt by comparison. His overly precious perspective strips away the element of evil, and his insistence upon tagging an otherwise intriguing reinterpretation of a dark historical figure with a conclusive moral point cripples the song.
Herein lies Illinois's most thought-provoking struggle. Stevens's constant push towards the spiritual, the surface-beautiful, the pure, the triumphant, cannot assimilate the dirty, the corporeal, the complicated, the fragile. Instead of wrestling with them, he sublimates them into lessons learned or reconfigures them just as he does Gacy's murders; whenever he approaches humanity's underbelly, he recoils, despite his initial mission to experience and gain as much knowledge and wisdom as possible. The songs remain blind to this tension; they encounter shit, yes, but they don't take it out and play with it, or even try to wipe it off -- they just hold their noses and call it the smell of roses, or begin envisioning a world without excretory functions.
Illinois is a big album, though, and it contains one instance in which Stevens doesn't turn away from ambiguity. "Casimir Pulaski Day" addresses three biggies -- faith, death and sexuality -- without reaching a definitive conclusion or refusing to drop anchor in turbulent waters. The song relays the story of a guy whose female friend dies of bone cancer; the two characters also share the same set of spiritual values and have engaged in a little hanky-panky. These three threads collide and compound the difficulty inherent in one another: "All the glory that the Lord has made and the complications you could do without when I kissed you on the mouth." In the end, the girl dies, God doesn't answer prayers and her father disapproves of the relationship, and the song concludes with the defeated words, "He takes and He takes and He takes." Glory only exists alongside confusion, and the flesh's tug-of-war with the spirit receives full treatment. Vitality, flowering passion and belief square off with decay, repression and doubt, and the final impression is that these diametric opposites will never be fully reconciled. It's the album's most honest song, and a fine example of how compelling Stevens can be when swallows hard and thrusts his hands down into the earth.
All of the issues in Illinois's lyrics emerge in its music, too. Stevens merges high forms (baroque and minimalist compositional music) with pop forms (Motown horns, Neil Young's more ornamented classic output, Elliott Smith's major label work) and a utilitarian form (the Broadway musical, where purpose always foregrounds music's existence). His distinct arrangement style firmly establishes the album as a portrait of an alternate stylized existence, while his tendency to favor classical flourishes and Broadway patterns over Rundgren-esque pop shows him gravitating yet again towards "higher" forms and concepts, to the album's detriment.
Illinois's best and most readily enjoyable moments are also the least interesting to discuss. Hidden gems like "Jacksonville" and "Decatur" sport economical arrangements and humble lyrics and make no stabs at greatness; they're just clever, sincere pop songs performed by an able songwriter. They exist as art for art's sake and provide the only moments worth returning to an expansive album that ultimately recycles itself. For all of his ambition, Sufjan Stevens is at his finest when he throws his hands in the air and lets everything exist.