Album: Sufjan Stevens

Illinois, ROUGH TRADE
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The Independent Culture

As before, this idiosyncratic polymath depicts the state's character through a vast montage of local legends, historical figures, small-town portraits, architectural assessments, evocations of landscape and accounts of industrial development, mingled together with personal reminiscences that bring an extra layer of mystery to a project already brimful of the arcane. Not least in the matter of track titles, the humour which tempers Stevens' approach signified by the sardonic pomposity of ridiculous locutions such as "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us" and "A conjunction of drones simulating the way in which Sufjan Stevens has an existential crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze".

The musical backdrop over which these observations are laid is just as complex, a bizarre blend of minimalism, alt.country and marching-band arrangements picked out mostly solo by the multi-instrumentalist Stevens. "Jacksonville" is sketched in banjo, guitar and piano, "Chicago" in massed chorale and earnestly chugging strings; woodwind and choir underscore the Indian massacre elegy "The Black Hawk War"; vibes and horns portray "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders"; and there are echoes of The Polyphonic Spree's bogus grandeur in "Prairie Fire that Wanders about".

The key early track is "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!", in which the blend of piano, percussion and horns carries a pessimistic rumination upon the notion of progress: "All great intentions/ Get covered with the imitations/ Oh god of progress/ Have you degraded or forgot us?". This refusal to buy into the public image of a location is what sets Stevens' project apart from a mere touristic depiction: at the heart of the endeavour is a keen appreciation of the importance of community, and how that notion is in perpetual flux.

When he muses upon things like "the bandstand chairs and the Dewey Day parade" or rhymes "Decatur" with "Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator", one receives a vivid mental snapshot of both a place and its people, as if leafing through some local newspaper. Whether Stevens can keep it up for the remaining 48 states remains to be seen. But for the moment, Illinois makes most other albums seem small-minded and, ironically, rather parochial.

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