Music WritingWritings

A Love Letter to Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois

“The whole premise was such a joke.”

These were the words used by Sufjan Stevens when asked about his 50 states project. When releasing Michigan in 2003, Stevens made apparent his intent to create 50 albums – one for each State – over the course of his career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this never materialised.

Luckily, before this project was abandoned, Stevens gave us Come on Feel the Illinoise. It was released twelve years ago this month, in July 2005, and it remains one of the great musical works of the 21st century.

The scale of Illinois is astounding. In terms of sheer scope, it surpasses almost any other contemporary album. It’s a well-crafted, sweeping depiction of a place, crafted entirely around a series of human stories: some historical, some fictional, some personal. It creates a cohesive portrayal of an entire state with 74 minutes of music.

The instrumentation, too, is similarly grand. Over 20 musicians came together to create this album, including a five-piece choir, a string-quartet and a brass section. Chicago, the album’s most well-known single, makes full use of this orchestral instrumentation.

This album has so many pieces of magic tucked away in every corner. Brief interludes are nestled between the album’s defining songs, and upon every listen, even 12 years down the line, new facets of these interludes and their surroundings songs reveal themselves.

Sufjan Stevens live at the Royal Festival Hall in London, September 2015

At points throughout the album, it seems that Stevens has been influenced by Minimalism, particularly Steve Riech. On the album’s final track, Out of Egypt…, glockenspiel, piano and a large woodwind section all phase in and out of sync with each other, creating thick, evolving textures. These textures are present at several points throughout the album, but come to the fore in the album’s finale.

This density of instrumentation allows the ballads in which Stevens sits alone at the piano or with his guitar stand out all the more. There are two central examples of this in the album: The Seer’s Tower and John Wayne Gacy, Jr. The latter deserves an article dedicated entirely to picking apart the nuances of the lyrics, but I will try and touch on its brilliance here.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was a serial killer and rapist who operated in Cook County, Illinois in the years between 1972 and 1978 who specifically targeted young men and teenage boys. His story is well known, particularly in America, and he is frequently pigeonholed as the archetype of evil hidden under a seemingly normal veneer. Stevens’ depiction, however, is far more empathetic. He successfully attempts to look at the human behind the acts. He opens the song with the lyrics:

“His father was a drinker,
And his mother cried in bed.
Folding John Wayne’s T-shirts
when the swing-set hit his head.”

Stevens isn’t simply letting Gacy off the hook, attempting to do something different by painting him and an entirely sympathetic light. But he does seem to be preaching a doctrine of Christian forgiveness. He uses a historically accurate and non-judgemental depiction of Gacy to explore facets of his own personality which trouble him. Stevens refuses to sit back and judge Gacy as a monster without first seeing him as a man. Stevens does this by holding himself in direct comparison with Gacy. The song closes with the lines:

“And in my best behaviour
I am really just like him:
Look beneath the floorboards
for the secrets I have hid.”

Just what these ‘secrets’ are we aren’t told, but it seems likely that it’s an allusion to Stevens’ sexuality, and the difficulty he finds in consolidating this sexuality with his devout Christianity (a recurring theme in much of his music). He recognises in himself some of the potential which must have been latent in a young Gacy to turn him down such an abhorrent path. It is a painfully tender and intimate look at both Gacy and Stevens, a masterwork of storytelling.

This imaginative, humanistic approach to storytelling extends throughout the album. In The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us, Stevens tells a story of his first homosexual encounter at a summer camp. The story is given an almost magical-realist twist; upon seeing a wasp, an adult Stevens is transported back into his childhood where he relives the experience he shared with his best friend. He sings:

‘Touching his back with my hand I kiss him
I see the wasp at the length of my arm.’

What could have been a simple love story is transformed into something more imaginative. The wasp becomes a symbol of the fragile sexuality of his adolescence: simultaneously dangerous and beautiful.  

It’s rare that a single songwriter can capture such breadth of emotion in a single album while maintaining a sense of cohesion. Illinois is heart-breaking, uplifting, nostalgic and humorous. It is a modern classic, and will be remembered as such in years to come.