Friday, September 18, 2009

Sufjan Stevens' whirlwind tour of Illinois

Yesterday, Melbourne’s CD store, Polyester Records, did a very dangerous thing. Well, dangerous for me and my bank balance, anyway. They released their top 50 list of CDs for the last five years, and when I saw things as good as Grizzly Bear’s Vekatemist at number 16, it became clear to me that some serious spending now looms ahead for me.

So I decided to start at the top and yesterday bought Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise – the second in his planned 50 album project, profiling every state of the US. Fortunately he’s pretty young because, at the present rate, with Michigan appearing in 2003 and this in 2005, and no more since, we’re clearly here for the long haul.

But if the rest of the states are as good as Illinois, I really do hope that the releases start coming a bit more quickly because, frankly, I just don’t have quite as much time left as Sufjan Stevens does.

Illinoise boasts no less than 22 tracks and nearly 75 minutes of music, taking you on the most amazing whirlwind tour of the prairie state. The songs are all interesting glimpses of Illinois: the famous, the infamous, the spectacular, the banal.

The music itself is very, very original – with keyboards that sometimes whirl and whir at an insane pace, as they do in “Chicago”, or with frenetic little phrases in the vocals that drive along far in excess of any sensible speed limit, as they do in the album’s title track “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” There are tunes that leave you breathless at their life-affirming, hypnotic catchiness, like in “Jacksonville” or “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders”.

But there are quieter moments too –sometimes unsettlingly so, like in the gentle folk of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”, a chillingly intimate song about one of America’s most notorious serial killers; and sometimes almost spiritually contemplative, as in “The Seer’s Tower”, with its pondering piano and haunting vocals.

There’s a fascinating array instruments on Illinoise: guitars, drums, percussion, banjo, piano, wurlitzer, saxophone, accordion, flute, glockenspiel, oboe, electric bass, recorders, vibraphone, organ – all of which Sufjan Stevens plays at some stage or another, and then a trumpet, that he doesn’t play, (which adds a beautiful languid feel to “Casimir Pulaski Day”), and a string quartet, and those amazing extra vocals that burst in here and there with the sort of vibrancy that makes you want to stop whatever you’re doing and just jump in the air for a bit.

And then there is Sufjan Stevens’ own singing – a soft, high, voice that somehow manages to sound like it is singing only to you.

But it’s ultimately the way that all of this comes together that makes this album so extraordinary – such incredibly ingenious arrangements where, even with so many disparate parts going in all kinds of directions, so many layers of sound all in conversation with one another, not a note ever seems at risk of wandering off on its own.

The whole thing was for me a glorious explosion of light and energy and creativity. I have already gone out and bought Michigan and can’t wait for the remaining 48 to appear. I never thought I would ever be this enthusiastic about America.

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