It’s a sparkling blue spring morning in Chicago. I’m riding the Brown Line of the city’s famous El transit system. Well, I shouldn’t say riding. We’re stuck between two stops behind a malfunctioning car up ahead. It’s rush hour, but Midwesterners are so stoic that even their yuppies don’t audibly sigh and complain, choosing instead to share their cell phones to call in late for work before returning to their paperbacks and Game Boys. I’m people watching, listening to an advance copy of Sufjan Steven’s second release in his 50 States project, Illinois. My eyes threaten to well up during two successive songs, but I restrain myself from letting loose and betraying my non-Midwestern roots.
The songs in question are opposite in scope and mood, but they can both cause a public display of emotion without warning, a testament to Stevens’ growing power as a writer and performer. Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State was a paean to civics and geography with exquisitely detailed character studies, epic song titles, and kitchen sink folk orchestral arrangements. Illinois follows suit and even extends its ambitions further in each of those respects. The first song that put a lump in my throat this morning was “Come on! Feel the Illinoise! — Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition — Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream”. And that’s one of the shorter titles. Such indulgences might strike some as a wee bit precious or pretentious, but I suspect Stevens is both winking good-naturedly at his audience, and trying to make his titles as ambitious as the songs they represent.
But back to the crying: “Come on!” overwhelms me with pride for all of its Chicago references, and not just because it’s my surrogate home. There is a deep Walt Whitman vein in this project, an exultant cataloguing of humanity that inspires no matter where you’re from. Shout-outs on “Come on!” include the Ferris wheel (which debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair in the Windy City), Frank Lloyd Wright, and the poet Sandburg.
Musically, “Part I” rocks out in the tricky 5/4 time signature Stevens is so fond of, and then segues into “Part II” with a Cure reference that slips the song into 4/4. The instrumental selection is as all-encompassing as the popular nouns — bells and whistles, a string quartet, a backing choir — but the song requires nothing less than that grandeur. Stevens himself sings “I cried myself to sleep last night / And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window / … I was asked to improvise / On the attitude, the regret of a thousand centuries of death”. No other writer I can think of is working with this amount of simultaneous scale and vulnerability.
On the flipside of this US Mint issued 50 States coin is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, which focuses on one particular Illinois native, in this case the notorious serial killer. The challenge of writing and pulling off this song is monumental for wholly different reasons than the rest of Illinois. How does one create an affecting piece of art centered on a cultural figure so extreme and reviled without being obvious/trite, or (even worse) sounding sympathetic to his actions by the plain fact of writing a song about him? The answer is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”: horrifying, tragic, and deeply sad without proselytizing. Who needs a song to tell them that murdering twenty-seven people is wrong? Instead, Stevens makes you feel it, describes the events in ways that strip away sensation and make you care, rather than numb, “Twenty-seven people, even more / They were boys / With their cars, summer jobs / Oh my God”. His voice is broken up on the phrase, going up into falsetto, as the weight of the situation overcomes both singer and song. The clincher is the final verse which begins, “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him”, echoing Mother Theresa when she was asked how and why she could devote her entire life’s work to the poor — because she was aware of her own potential for evil.
With the exceptions of the playfully brief interstitials that pop up here and there to reprise songs, “One last ‘Whoo-hoo!’ for the Pullman” for example, nearly every song holds power in its own right. The album opens with piano and flute on “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”. Background singers Katrina Kerns and Shara Worden enter the song at just the right moments, wrapping their voices around Stevens’ croon. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” is strident and propulsive, with electric guitar solos and thudding drum work alternating with hushed verses. “They Are Night Zombies !! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Run For Your Lives!! Ahhhhhh!” rides a funk/disco bassline, while “Decatur” utilizes Sufjan’s inventive banjo playing and reversed melody/harmony vocal lines. And then there’s “Casimir Pulaski Day” which bring us back around to the subject of tears. “Goldenrod and the 4-H stone / The things I brought you / When I found out you had cancer of the bone / Your father cried on the telephone…” Stevens sings, with a melody and cadence that belie the somberness of the memory. Later, he recalls, “… the living room, when you kissed my neck / And I almost touched your blouse”, and finally, “In the morning when you finally go / And the nurse runs in with her head hung low / And the cardinal hits the window”.
The bittersweet twists and turns of a lifetime eloquently described in a folk-pop song — it really doesn’t get much better than this; these songs that must be heard to be believed. Rumors abound about the future of Stevens’s ambitions to record an album for the remaining 48 states — but regardless of what happens, he’s just made a big leap from the already high elevation of Michigan, and I can’t wait for what’s next.