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Sufjan Stevens:: Come On Feel the Illinoise (Album Review)

I expect the world of Sufjan Stevens – or at least the nation, anyway. In 2003, when he promised the good little indie rock boys and girls he’d be releasing an album for each one of the fifty states, he filled their dreams with star-spangled sugarplum fairies. Knowing we’d wait with bated breath as he unfurled a catalog of Pollardlike proportions, it was easy to carve a niche for himself – not for any gimmick, but because his music is simply that good. On my own personal map, I await tracks for each place I’ve lived – South Bend, Omaha, Kansas City and Chicago, the last of which feels ever-present on his second commemorative production, Come On Feel the Illinoise. Illinois (both the album and the state) is hard not to see through the eyes of Chicago. Its towering presence brings forth wonderful contrasts of industry, farmland, optimism, corruption and sprawling, impersonal masses. The perspective of such a big city is never lost on this work, always bringing forth assurances of innovation, and with it, decay. So much of Illinois feels magical, however, in much the same way as a large State Fair: there is commotion and wonder as the population is continually enchanted by progress, but to unknown purpose. With the grand coronation of “The Black Hawk War”, we hear Illinois is not as sleepy as Michigan, but at the same time, its purity is secretly lost. In an overarching statement on modern society, Stevens exposes the glossiness of Illinois’ exterior, which has burned out a little of its soul. As such, when the album does reflect on the remaining beauty found in pockets of towns and the wide eyes of children, it is even more inspiring. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” harnesses the joyful bustle of ethnic diversity found stretched across the greater metropolis, with an inviting feel akin to the sight of Ellis Island on sore eyes. And, as “Chicago” chants “All things go,” its majestic, swirling images of possibility and movement can leave you awestruck. Illinois, then, takes the presence of a child, always in a world of amazement. With the coupling of “Prairie Fire that Wanders About” and “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” we’re treated to heavy-handed arrangements like that of a children’s choir brandishing sparklers in state pride; there is choreography to be learned, rounds to be sung and medleys to be melted into soft, waxy byproducts. It is charmingly false – a seeming symbol of the state itself. In contrast, the twangier, more rustic numbers give glimpses of falseness and authenticity. “Decatur” feels like a forced field trip to somewhere terminally boring, where the hyped sights and sounds of the country life do nothing but disappoint, while “Casimir Pulaski Day” is more down-to-earth but never hokey, sticking with the God-Loving, Red-Voting Midwesternness that requires capitalization of holy traditions. “”They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!” caps off the rural trilogy with a slanted, dirt-of-the-earth stylistic shift, where hymn-inspired choruses cannot bury the foreboding evil. For every blank-faced innocent to innocuously dig through Illinois’ closets, there are decayed skeletons awaiting their inevitable approach. Even tones of religion found in tracks like “The Seer’s Tower” feel like propaganda or hopeless appeals for repentance and sacrifice, where death is desperately existential: “Still I go to the deepest grave,” it laments, “Where I go to sleep alone.” This is not the prayer of the blissfully heavenbound; it is the inevitable surrender of a lost soul. Perhaps this is why songs like “Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind” feel so invigorated by the prospect of science and industry: the fluorescent, the electric and the futuristic all hum and glow like the foretold miracles. Gentrification will save this sordid state, or so the promises say, and Sufjan Stevens will observe every steamrolling victory – all the while making witless liars out of false prophets as they smile, bid him good day, and welcome him as a neighbor. (Reviewed by Sarah Peters)