When Sufjan Stevens announced his 50 states project, it was a clear marketing gimmick to sell a record about his home state of Michigan. It was a brilliant ploy to garner attention for an independently released album he couldn’t afford to advertise, but before long, the idea blossomed into a project Sufjan is apparently willing to devote the rest of his career toward. Michigan was brilliant, beautiful and heartfelt, but it was also his home state. Could he treat any other state with such a range of emotions?

Eston Bond

Sufjan immediately addresses this weighty proposition by opening Illinois with “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” By beginning the album in outer space, Sufjan embraces Illinois from an outsiders view, erasing any doubts of how he’d handle a foreign state.

Had Sufjan taken an ironic stance, Illinois would’ve been too emotionally shallow. Instead, by embracing everything from the mundane to the absurd, with honesty and imagination, he creates a vision of Illinois where we’re all tourists. Illinois captures the essence of Illinois without having to stick to a rigid depiction, much the same way Aaron Copeland channeled the ideals of America with his masterpiece, Appalachian Spring.

It doesn’t hurt that the songs themselves are stunningly gorgeous. Sufjan’s voice is heavenly and while his songwriting has always been top-notch, it’s his ornate orchestrations that really elevate his talent. The addition of a string quartet to Sufjan’s one-man orchestra makes songs like “Decatur, Or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” and “Chicago” move from fragile to transcendent.

“Casimir Pulaski Day” lies at the heart of Illinois and, curiously enough, it has nothing to do with Casimir Pulaski, the victor in the Battle of Brandywine, or Illinois itself. Instead it tells the story of a childhood love’s cancer-induced death with a simultaneous mood of naïveté and wisdom. Whether he’s singing songs inspired by George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” Carl Sandburg or the tragic childhood of John Wayne Gacy Jr., Sufjan strikes a nerve. To love Michigan you had to love Michigan, but to love Illinois you just need a heart. Flawless from beginning to end, Illinois is an American classic.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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