A Travel Guide With Heart
There are obstacles one must overcome when listening to Sufjan Stevensâ€šÃ„Ã´ Illinois: song titles up to twenty-five words in length, mini-instrumentals, and, depending on your religious perspective, Christian overtones. Once these deterrents are embraced, the album emerges as a rich and moving portrait of an American state.Illinois is Stevensâ€šÃ„Ã´ second state-themed album in his ambitious plan to write about each of the fifty. Whether he possesses the endurance to complete such a project, and whether it will remain interesting ten, twenty states in remains to be seen. What makes Illinois successful is Stevensâ€šÃ„Ã´ adept musicianship, songwriting prowess, and lyrical economy.
Throughout the album, Stevens strikes a comfortable balance between upbeat movements that playfully animate a time and place (â€šÃ„ÃºJacksonville,â€šÃ„Ã¹ â€šÃ„ÃºDecaturâ€šÃ„Ã¹) and mournfully bare ballads written in tribute to lives and memories passed. The ballads are especially engaging as Stevensâ€šÃ„Ã´ gentle manner and almost detached vocal style, which should rob the songs of emotional value, add a haunting and penetrating sense of vacancy, of loss.
â€šÃ„ÃºJohn Wayne Gacy, Jr.,â€šÃ„Ã¹ an accurate biography of the famed serial killer, brings humanity to the man without diminishing his horrific actions or trivializing the lives he took. With â€šÃ„ÃºCasimir Pulaski Day,â€šÃ„Ã¹ about a friend dying of cancer, Stevens expresses the confusion and pain of a family in crisis with a series of scenic lyrical triplets that proves Stevens a uniquely poetic storyteller. He sidesteps maudlin melodrama with ease, maintaining his subjectsâ€šÃ„Ã´ dignity.
The albumâ€šÃ„Ã´s strengths wane as it progresses. Weighed down by religious content and pretty, but unnecessary, instrumentals, it loses focus. Nonetheless, the album is enough to make the idea of seventy-plus minutes about West Virginia sound good.