I had a cafeteria friend in college (college was great for that in that you can have neatly segmented friendships like that that don't infringe on your highly, highly important social network at large) where really all I remember is that we, both ardent followers of maverick 20th century American orchestral music, had this evolving routine about creating The Great American Opera, involving football players and frozen fish-sticks, Speed Racer and divorce, summing up the Modern Experience as we had Experienced it, and the key element is that it was to be sung in Esperanto, Language of the Future, which would preclude our lead to be played by William Shatner, who in a pre-Trek incarnation starred in an all-Esperanto thriller Incubus. A noble goal to be sure, one that would unite the People in a mix of college sophomore Marxism and "I'd-like-to-buy-the-world-a-Coke" communal consumerist convergence, but surprisingly it never got further than the planning stages, hashed out over slimy noodles and mystery chicken in Highland Cafeteria. No wonder opera is on a cultural downslide nowadays.
Fortunately, my friend and I were not the only ones wanting to do this sort of thing. Multi-instrumentalist and contender for becoming the new indie rock Steven Sondheim, Sufjan Stevens set forth a a daunting project in 2002 of making 50 albums one for each states, inaugurating this series with the transcendent epic Greeting from Michigan The Great Lakes State and fantastic salad of Philip Glass minimalism, brilliant sad melodies about hard life in the cold. It was his home state, so its a logical but easy place to start, and the fact that his next album was the exquisite but not geography themed "Seven Swans" I figured the checking-off of his music map would advance with the same pace as my Esperanto lessons. But no, Stevens, being of stronger stuff (and according to bis bio, inventor of his own language in high school) , kicked in with his second installment Illinoise alternately titled in the graphics Come on! Feel the Illinoise! which ups the ante on Michigan in terms of complexity, consistency and elan.
It opens with "Concerning the UFO Sightings Near Highland, IL" which is one of the more concise titles he employs here (I am expecting that by the time he gets around to his Rhode Island installment, one song will consist of every name in the Providence phone book) ,all beautiful piano passages and his small, tranquil voice singing a hazy melody about God and stars which leads into the epic duo "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!'" followed by the two parter "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!" Watch, as your iPod explodes trying to fit that on its LCD. Seriously, there are some songs here where the song is over before the title finishes scrolling by on Windows Media Player. That aside, this convergence of strings and choirs and pulses is the most breathtaking thing you have heard until you get into "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." a (gasp) touching song about the famed killer and the circumstances of his fame. Here is where Sufjan's oft-mentioned Christianity is put to ideological task, in that toward the end he lets judgement fall aside, proclaiming
In my best behaviour, I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid
With the rush of black metal stuff I am getting for review lately, I would've guessed one of them to be the source of a Gacy tribute tune instead of this, much less expecting one that would be so genuinely touching.
There are a number of fun travelogue songs on this one, like "Jacksonville" and the resplendent "Chicago" where he matches Chamber of Commerce pamphlet copy lyrics to his innate clockwork of catchy chamber pop. No one trading in this strain, not even dearly beloved Brian Wilson, can match Stevens' handle on how to craft a truly complex yet simple song.
One criticism I may lay upon our boy is that he can be a bit of a Pollyanna in his banjos and Up With People optimism, but all that slides away when you encounter lyrics that appear to have been ripped from his journal pages, like the so-sweet-i-wanna-cry remembrance of innocence challenged in "Casimir Pulaski Day"
Tuesday night at the Bible Study
We lift our hands and pray over your body but nothing ever happens
I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck and I almost touched your blouse
I can't think of a sweeter and more real depiction of the nervousness of exploring one another for the first time. I get that shudder reminding me of the first time I French kissed a girl: she from Denton, TX, we both escaping the RV's of our families in a Colorado state park, with both of our little sisters issuing an alarm of I'm-gonna-tells. Delicious beautiful stuff.
Another wistful moment is the acceptance of his step-mother in "Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Step Mother!" Many of us kids of this vintage, before the boorish Moral Majority decided to keep dysfunctional families intact, like Petri dishes growing discontent at geometric rates, can readily relate to the concept of having to get to know a new parent. And that moment where your decision is made final one way or another.
So much on this album. Sweet instrumental interludes longer in title than song like "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" or "A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze." Great little positivist stompers like "The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts" Lotus flower explosions of choirs and chimes like "Prairie Fire That Wanders About" images of Carl Sandburg and Lincoln and cows and corn and snow and childhood and loss and love. Its too much.
And yet, with all this going into it, its his sound of pulsing beauty and progress that holds it together. Personally I find this a musical Triumph, with a big T. I, like many who fell head over heels with Michigan believed he couldn't top it, and I'm not sure he did, but he at least produced its equal, with these two relatively uninteresting-to-the-outsider places creating such engaging works of art. It brings credence to the idea that all things are inherently fascinating if you submit to opening your heart to them. And since you and I have problems doing that, being as cool and been-there as we both are, Sufjan Stevens arrives in the nick of time with a crowbar to crack open those stones beating in our sunken chests, letting in the light of discovery. And its not even in Esperanto!
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com