At some point in everyone’s life there is a certain album that you will have a love affair with. An album that is able to stir emotions so primeval and fantastical that even the thought of starting the first track gives you goosebumps and, depending on the person, makes you tear up in joy that once again you are about to travel along your favourite road, and time will just seem to stop around you until the final track is coming to a close. For me that album is Sufjan Stevens’ indie-folk master class Illinois.
So what is it that makes Illinois such an indispensible listen? Is it the fact that it is a fantastically crafted concept album that never dulls? Is it because of Sufjan’s innate ability to create varied songs that somehow maintain a common ground? Maybe it’s a mix of these two, with the further contributions of insane song titles and the wide variety of instruments that are layered on top of each other to make a lush production, that made this incredibly nuanced album the top rated of 2005.
Each track is resplendent with references to the aforementioned state of Illinois, paying homage to everything from individual districts, its famed serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and its landmarks. Yet Sufjan is somehow able to include enough of these knowing references, something that is sure to mean a great deal more to Illinoisans, and make this more about the people who inhabit the state rather than just a simple tribute. Such an angle of human interest thus makes these tales culturally universal whilst still anchored in the state itself.
Such an angle of human interest forms the backbones of some of the album highlights such as ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’ about a girl dying of leukaemia, the track itself named after a Illinoisan public holiday, which is so genuinely touching that it can induce tears. Also an obvious highlight is the road trip song ‘Chicago’, which most will know from its appearance in the indie-comedy Little Miss Sunshine as well as a reference in the Snow Patrol song ‘Eyes Open’, whose refrain of “I made a lot of mistakes” helps to provide a great feeling of escapism and freedom. Then there is ‘Decatur’ which is actually an incredibly sweet song about someone trying desperately to hate their stepmother but in the end being able to reconcile with her.
Some of these songs may sound saccharin but Sufjan’s lyrics are so intelligently put together with beautifully crafted melodies that the album becomes somewhat of an addiction on the third listen. Songs like ‘Come On! Feel The Illinoise!’ and ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!’ reveal multiple layers as the stories unravel further and further until suddenly these yarns become as vibrant as the sumptuous melodies that form their backdrop.
From this Sufjan Stevens truly emerged to the masses, but not so much that his albums felt robbed of their uniqueness. Illinois managed to get enough notice to inform those with an ear to the ground, but not to everyone, meaning that the first listen still feels like finding a diamond mine untapped by none other by yourself.