New Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

Sometimes more-of-the-same isn’t a bad thing. True, Sufjan Stevens & The Michigan Militia have moved to Illinois (dubbing themselves the Illinoisemakers) but this new album is the same Sufjan we know and love. Fingerpicked ballads of delicate twang, tasteful orchestration, and titles that are murder on the ID3 tags:

01 “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL”
02 “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Going To Have To Leave Now, Or, ‘I Have Fought The Big Knives And Will Continue To Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'”
03 “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”
    Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition
    Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream
04 “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
05 “Jacksonville”
06 “A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons”
07 “Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Step Mother!”
08 “One Last ‘Woo-hoo!’ For The Pullman”
09 “Chicago”
10 “Casimir Pulaski Day”
11 “To The Workers Of The Rockford River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament, And It Involves Shoe String, A Lavender Garland, And Twelve Strong Women”
12 “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”
13 “Prairie Fire That Wanders About”
14 “A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze”
15 “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!”
16 “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!”
17 “Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All The Way Out In Bushnell”
18 “In This Temple, As In The Hearts Of Man, For Whom He Saved The Earth”
19 “The Seer’s Tower”
20 “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders”
    Part I: The Great Frontier
    Part II: Come To Me Only With Playthings Now
21 “Riffs And Variations On A Single Note For Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, And The King Of Swing, To Name A Few”
22 “Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run”

I too was dubious about Sufjan’s project to record tribute albums for all fifty states. I loved Michigan but had issues with the gimmick. Then, project sidetracked after one album, Sufjan delivered a bibical folk masterpiece so I was in for the long haul.

No. 2 of 50 leaked last week. It’s a paean to Illinois and already a likely entry in Stereogum’s Top Ten Of 2005.

Illinois opens with a contemporary jazz meditation on the “alien thing” spotted in the sky by Highland residents a few years back … then a fluttering instrumental march for the Black Hawk War of 1832 … and we’re onto the punchy “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” (how can you not love that title?). Part I (about the 1893 World’s Fair) finds Sufjan’s band channeling its inner Brubeck with an angelic chorus spitting rhymes in 5/4 time. A little prog break segues into Part II, which recalls recent Lambchop. The disc’s a history lesson, but you won’t mind.

“The Predatory Wasp” drifts in and out of the breathless chamber pop Andy Partridge played with in the late ’90s.

My iTunes’ most played track (DISCLOSURE: been DVRing a lot of Forensics Files lately) is the twisted eulogy “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Our narrator sympathizes with the clown-loving serial killer in the last verse.

Decatur and Chicago also get shout outs — the former an upbeat banjo ditty, the latter a cousin of some Polyphonic Spree song. “Chicago” sounds familiar — 93% sure he broke it out at Southpaw in November.

So Illinois is a luscious, epic poem. My only gripe is the lack of surprise. Sufjan is clearly as gifted as he is ambitious. I’d be curious to hear a Neil Youngy dirge like “Casimir Pulaski Day” without the exquisitely arranged horns and twee choir. At least “The Man Of Metropolis” introduces — brace yourself — dissonant electric guitar and sleepy disco “They Are Night Zombies!” is downright groovy (by Danielson Famile standards). On Illinois Sufjan’s 30-strong posse includes Craig Montoro (Volcano, I’m Still Excited!), James McAlister (Ester Drang), and Shara Worden (AwRY).

I love this album. Keep an eye out.

Sufjan Stevens – “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL” (MP3 removed)
Sufjan Stevens – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (MP3 removed)

What do the Illinois readers think? Does Sufjan do justice?

Did I mention his super-cute xylo player?