Sufjan Stevens - Come on feel the Illinoise!

I'm reminded of the words of Voltaire, who, at the end of a lengthy letter to a friend apologised for his verbosity. He explained that he just hadn't had the time to make it shorter.



Sufjan Stevens – Come on feel the Illinoise!


Sufjan Stevens has set himself the unenviable task of recording tribute albums to each of America's fifty states. After Michigan we reach Illinois. You probably know a fair bit about Stevens as he's one of the most critically acclaimed artists to have hit the scene in the last few years. His religious beliefs have attracted attention (for reasons that I don't really understand – he's hardly Pat Boone) but in the main it is his song-writing skills that have taken centre stage. And rightly so. His talent is also manifest in the interesting orchestrations that he conjures up. On Illinois he's filled the album out with a string quartet, a choir, horns and even the kitchen sink gets played on one track. Actually, that's not true, sadly, but maybe he's saving that up for Alabama.


The album opens with two short introductory tracks. Most of the tracks have ridiculously long titles for some reason so I'm not going to name them here but the second one comes on like the Polyphonic Spree doing a medieval number before being drowned out by horns and drums. The album really gets going with the third track – 'Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition/Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream'. See what I mean? And there are a few with longer titles than this. Anyway, it starts off in a jaunty fashion with xylophones, drums and horns (reminding me a little of Eric Matthews – whatever happened to him?). It's one of those great songs that doesn't go verse – chorus – verse but instead goes chorus – chorus1 – chorus, if you know what I mean. Anyway, after a few minutes it takes a detour in The Cure's Close to Me. I don't know if this is intentional or not, but it does. There seems to be a bit of this kind of thing going on at the moment – Beck (unintentionally, I'm sure) borrowed from Faust IV on his recent album. Anyway, the Cure motif carries on throughout the remainder of the song as female choirs come and go and a good time is had by all.


It would be easy to think that Stevens is a little sugary sweet from the instruments he uses. But you'd be wrong. The very next track details the crimes of John Wayne Gacy Jr., the mass murderer who killed thirty-three young boys in the seventies. Over just a piano and acoustic guitar Stevens accomplishes the very tricky feat of writing a beautiful and compassionate song about a very difficult subject. Another song that deals with a difficult issue is Casimir Pulaski Day – a young girl's death from cancer is detailed in a similarly restrained and poignant way. No, despite the silly titles and the playful nature of some of the songs, Stevens is a mature songwriter not afraid to tackle difficult subjects.


But there is a problem with this album. Rather like this sentence, it is far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far far too long. Now, this is one of my usual bugbears but I think it really matters here. (Apocryphally perhaps, the CD is 80 minutes in length because the then head of Phillips was a huge fan of Beethoven's Ninth  - imagine if he'd loved Pet Sounds instead...) The reason? Well, unlike on most albums there isn't any filler here. It's not like it's padded out with rubbish. The trouble is that there are seventy-seven minutes of Sufjan. Love him as I do this is too much. His voice doesn't really alter – frail and wispy and sounding like he needs to eat a few steaks – and the songs end up becoming interchangeable after the first half has passed you by. Also, the technique of rocking out and then paring everything back for the verse is used too often. And anyway, it's not as if he hasn't set himself a difficult enough task with his 50 states project – he could have saved half of this album for the next one. He'd have had to change the words of course but I'm sure that wouldn't have been a problem.


But I know that I'm going to listen to this album a lot more frequently than I would have had it clocked in at a respectable 40 odd minutes. There's some out there who would no doubt find this criticism unduly harsh. But I'm reminded of the words of Voltaire, who, at the end of a lengthy letter to a friend apologised for his verbosity. He explained that he just hadn't had the time to make it shorter. Editing is a hard and difficult process but it is also a very necessary one.


It is still a very good album of course, but I can't envisage too many getting through the whole lot in one go. And this would be a shame because there are some good tracks tucked away past the hour mark. Maybe he could do Hawaii next and make it a mini album.


Words: Chris Dawson.