There are plenty of reasons to hate Sufjan Stevens. First of all there’s his name. It’s apparently Armenian and pronounced SOOF-yen. Come on. What kind of name is that?
Then there’s the whole gimmick about his 50 states project. Whatever. He came up with a clever way to get rock critics to pay attention to his Michigan album back when nobody had heard of him: just tell them there’s 49 more where that came from.
And what about the titles of the songs on his new album? Naming a song “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!'” is just preposterous (although you have to admit that “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhhh!” is a pretty amusing song title).
And his background… He went to Hope, a small liberal arts college, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, where he won all kinds of awards including the William B. Eerdmans’ Prize for prose in 1996 and for poetry in 1998. He also won an Erika Brubaker Award for Promising Achievements in the Study of Literature in 1996 and the more exclusive Senior Award for Proficiency in Literature in 1998. Anyone who grew up in West Michigan will tell you that Hope College has a reputation for being very conservative, very Christian, and very dry (of course there were always bad kids who snuck in booze; in fact, Hope’s coolest alumni by far are the founders of New Holland Brewing who make some of the finest beers in America).
But none of that shit has anything to do with the music. Or does it? Spiritual and religious themes come up frequently in Stevens’ lyrics, and he talks a lot about his faith in interviews. He’s associated with the Sounds Familyre gang (Danielson Famile, etc.) who are known for creating a new genre of alt-Christian rock. These are basically a bunch of fundies who don’t want to admit to playing Christian rock. Well, that’s not very accurate. It’s not really Christian rock at all. If you’ve spent any time at all in an evangelical Christian environment, you know what real Christian rock sounds like. And it sounds bad. It sounds like a weak imitation of whatever drivel was selling on the pop charts about five years ago. Always a little weaker, always about five years behind.
But Stevens doesn’t play that type of Christian rock. Nope, his music actually more closely resembles the actual worship music you’d hear coming out of any number of fundamentalist Christian churches on a Sunday morning. Never heard the real thing? Picture a choir of five or six well-scrubbed youngish men and women with their shirts tucked in, singing together with gusto but not really singing harmonies—just singing together. Behind them is a band made up of a guitar player who Jesus saved from a drug addiction of some type many, many years ago. The bass player and the drummer play very quietly so as not to ruffle the feathers of the recently reformed Baptists. There’s also a mousey lady on keys (or flute) who smiles and sings along and shakes a tambourine. Hands are raised to the air, eyes are closed in devotion, people sway, and the presence of the Holy Spirit is upon them. Sort of like the Polyphonic Spree without any of the hot stank of sweaty, culty sex.
While some of the music on Illinois is as mediocre as those church bands, Stevens’ lyrics are a lot more interesting. Like his Sounds Familyre posse, his faith is only one or several themes that he explores in his lyrics. And he’s got one song in particular on the album that is capable of palpably breaking your heart.
“Casimir Pulaski Day” (mp3) is a song about losing a close friend to cancer. It’s also about losing your faith in God. Or at least questioning the belief that God will intercede on your behalf in your daily life. It deals with these subjects so delicately and beautifully that you almost can’t believe it: “Tuesday night at the Bible study we lift our hands and pray over your body but nothing ever happens.” Illinois is worth listening to for this one song alone, but there is plenty of great stuff spread over its 74 minutes.
“Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother!” is a fun song with the unforgettable couplet: “Stephen A. Douglass was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator.” If that reminds you of They Might Be Giants, it should, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole 50 states project seems like something TMBG would’ve thought up, but they probably would’ve had the grace to limit it to one song rather than a whole album per state.
And that’s the whole problem with the concept. Do we really need the instrumental padding like “The Black Hawk War” and “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But for Very Good Reasons”? The “set-change” filler combined with all the fucking choral background vocals gives the album an unfortunate Andrew Lloyd Webber vibe. Ambitious? Sure, but do we need another Jesus Christ Superstar? Or another Chess? I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine. But hey, if you’re into the theatrics, you’ll probably enjoy it.
Still, there’s a lot to like. As with most 74-minute long albums, it could be greatly improved by trimming off about 25 minutes. But that leaves plenty of great stuff. “Chicago,” “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” (mp3), and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” are all beautiful, affecting pop songs. Sadly, nothing lives up to the promise of “Casimir Pulaski Day” (mp3). But shit, how could it? This truly is one of the best songs you’ll hear this year. For anyone who’s ever sat at a loved one’s deathbed, for anyone who’s ever felt helpless and exhausted as they watch someone’s life fade away, for anyone who’s ever felt that if there is a God then He must be a real asshole, this song is for us.
In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window
In the morning, in the winter shade,
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders, and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes