Wednesday, January 2, 2008

O'er Thy Praries Verdant Growing: Review of Sufjan Stevens' "Come On, Feel the Illinoise"

I recently had the happy circumstance to finally get a hold of a copy of Sufjan Stevens’ Come On, Feel the Illinoise. I had a lot of interest in and expectation for this album. Firstly, despite the fact there has been little pride in individual state citizenship since the Civil War, I love living in Illinois. I do. I love this state, believing it to be the greatest in the Union. Secondly, I am always looking forward to the next progression in popular music, yearning for something that, even if not good, is different. I knew this was about right for this CD from the song titles alone. Illinoise is not only radically different from most anything else out there, it exhibits a remarkable diversity in itself. Furthermore, I don’t know if Stevens is from this great state, but his sentimentalism, sincerity, and knowledge for the subject matter and its relation to what he is really talking about is sometimes touching, sometimes frightening and always reminding me of why I adore living in the Land of Lincoln.
So with that in mind, I should give you a heads-up on what this album sounds like. If asked me you this in conversation, I would answer, “It sounds like beauty.” You would then, of course, consider me a vague idiot. You’d be right, but know I do this because I don’t want to sound like a trying idiot attempting to explain something so vast. The point is, stylistically speaking, this one everywhere. There are tracks sounding like the best in modern pop rock, as if Coldplay had suddenly decided to ditch Britain and sing about America’s number 2 corn producer and number 1 sweet-as-all-get-out maker. There is ambience which is not overdone, but rather measured to fit within its borders, which makes Iowa jealous and Missouri angry. Other times, there is a strong element of instrumentalism, from eerily melodic flutes (my weapon of choice against silent complacence), to blazingly inspiring trumpets. It is a sort of big band alt. rock. Sometimes, the entire track will be wordless, depending only upon horns and pipes to carry the homeland’s soul. They do so wonderfully. There are also some outstanding examples of the new standby for white males ages 16-24 (the acoustic guitar). That said, there is one approach taken here that impresses me beyond belief: using bluegrass. I know, it’s crazy, but Stevens actually embraces a genre stereotyped to hillbillies. The wild thing is, it isn’t a joke. There is no parody, pantomime, or even play at the homespun (redneck) style. It’s sincere, legitimate, and, get this… you ready?.. amazing.
Also, Stevens is making a lot of statements in this album. There is commentary on the depravity of man in the song, John Wayne Gasey, Jr. There is a message of the strength of character required to truly love in The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts. There are so many tracks on here, and they are all great, some serving as imperceptable interludes, but it works.
That all said, it is a thematically and musically advanced piece. I mean, there’s not much more to say than that. I’m so glad Stevens kicked his Unites States Project off with my home state, and I’m so glad I got to hear it. Thanks Sufjan, I look forward to hearing more from you soon!

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