Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005)

Eccentrics have long held a respected place in rock music. A giant list of performers have been labeled eccentric, deservedly or not, but few have been as deserving of this label as Detroit native and current New York City resident Sufjan Stevens. Stevens' previous effort was a concept album dedicated to his home state, and it generated enough of a response that he set a goal for himself to make an album for each of the fifty states. Now comes Illinois -- or, to use its full-length tittle, Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise! On this bizarrely compelling CD, Stevens brings together famous and infamous characters in the history of Illinois (the poet Carl Sandburg, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and his Wife, Jane Addams, Benny Goodman, Shoeless Joe Jackson); throws in aliens, zombies, Superman, Santa Claus, and a predatory wasp for good measure; and spices up the mix with instrumental interludes bearing titles like "A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons." Stevens plays most of the many, many instruments himself, but receives some help from a drummer, a trumpet player, a string quartet, some backing vocalists and the five-piece Illinoisemaker Choir.

So how does an album like this get chosen Album of the Year by both the critics and fans at Paste Magazine? Well, as much as Illinois can come across at points like the soundtrack to a play worthy of Waiting for Guffman, there is a definite method to Sufjan Stevens' madness. For one thing, Stevens manages to make the generally silly tone of most of the album sound more charming than annoying. But more seriously, he can write a catchy chorus as well as anybody in the new generation of artists out right now. It would take a more stubborn person than myself to resist the urge to sing along with songs like "Chicago" and "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts." There are hidden trinkets of depth in the lyrics as well, including several political and Christian (but not far-right Christian) metaphors. In the final song "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders," Stevens has the choir sing, "What have we become America? Soldiers on the great frontier! Carpenter and Soldier, one on one, it's the battle, volunteer!"

Is Illinois completely whacky? Well, yes actually. Is it completely whacky but brilliant? Often enough to justify giving it a listen.

Overall Grade: B+

No comments: