Sufjan Stevens — Illinoise (July 4, 2005)
λ• ”That he plays most of the instruments — including acoustic guitar, piano, alto sax, electric bass, drums, banjo, Wurlitzer, flute, accordion, glockenspiel, and at least 20 more — and still writes songs that often surprise for their minimalism is just stupid good. Sufjan Stevens gets everything right. And, ultimately, that’s how Illinois surpasses expectations. From its framing gimmick and its anti–folk folk songwriting to its he–has–to–be–kidding song titles and its show–offy instrumentation, Illinois should reduce to a simple stunt performance. That it’s pop–art of the highest caliber, instead, cements Stevens as one of the most vital voices in music today. It’s all but inconceivable that the next 48 albums will match Illinois’ quality, but Stevens is one of a select few artists who could justify such long–term anticipation.„ — BY JONATHAN KEEFE ON JUNE 30, 2005, SLANT MAGAZINE
Location: Brooklyn, NYC
Album release: July 4, 2005
Recorded: Late 2004 through early winter 2005
Studio: The Buddy Project, Astoria, Queens, New York City, United States as well as various locations in and around New York City
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty
01. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois 2:09
02. 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!’ 2:15
03. Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition — Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream) 6:46
04. John Wayne Gacy, Jr 3:20
05. Jacksonville 5:25
06. A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons 0:48
07. Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother! 3:04
08. One Last ‘Whoo–Hoo!’ for the Pullman 0:07
09. Chicago 6:05
10. Casimir Pulaski Day 5:54
11. To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and it Involves an Inner Tube, Bath Mats, and 21 Able–bodied Men 1:41
12. The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts 6:17
13. Prairie Fire That Wanders About 2:11
14. A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze 0:20
15. The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us 5:23
16. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh! 5:10
17. Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell (0:40)
18. In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth 0:35
19. The Seer’s Tower 3:54
20. The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier — Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now) (7:03)
21. Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few 0:47
22. Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run 4:22
Background, recording and tour:
λ• Stevens launched his 50–state project in 2003 with the album Michigan and chose to focus on Illinois with this recording because “it wasn’t a great leap”, and he liked the state because he considered it the “center of gravity” for the American Midwest. λ• Before creating the album, Stevens read literature by Illinois authors Saul Bellow and Carl Sandburg, and studied immigration records and history books for the state — he made the deliberate decision to avoid current events and focused on historical themes. He also took trips through several locations in Illinois and asked friends and members of Internet chat rooms for anecdotes about their experiences in the state. Although he began work in 2004 on Oregon–themed songs and briefly considered releasing a Rhode Island 7”, Stevens has since not released another album focused on a state, saying in a November 2009 interview with Paste that “the whole premise was such a joke,” and telling Andrew Purcell of The Guardian in October 2009 “I have no qualms about admitting [the fifty states project] was a promotional gimmick.” An Arkansas–related song was released through NPR as “The Lord God Bird” and material intended for New Jersey and New York became The BQE.
λ• All of the songs on Illinois were written, recorded, engineered, and produced by Stevens, with most of the material being recorded at The Buddy Project studio in Astoria, Queens, and in Stevens’ Brooklyn apartment. As with his previous albums, Stevens recorded in various locations, with additional piano recorded in St. Paul’s Church in Brooklyn; strings and vocals performed in collaborators’ apartments; electronic organ recorded in the New Jerusalem Recreational Room in Clarksboro, New Jersey; and vibraphone played at Carroll Music Studios in New York City. Stevens mostly created the album without collaboration, focusing on the writing, performance, and technical creation of the album by himself: “I was pretty nearsighted in the construction of Illinois. I spent a lot of time alone, a few months in isolation working on my own and in the studio. I let things germinate and cultivate independently, without thinking about an audience or a live show at all.”
λ• Stevens employed low–fidelity recording equipment, which allowed him to retain creative control and keep costs low on recording Illinois. Typically, his process involved recording to 32 kHz 8–track tape using inexpensive microphones such as the Shure SM57 and AKG C1000. He then employed Pro Tools for mixing and other production tasks.
λ• After consulting with Michael Kaufmann and Lowell Brams of Asthmatic Kitty about the amount of material he had recorded, Stevens decided against a double album, saying that would be “arrogant”. In 2006, several tracks recorded during these sessions were sent to Seattle–based musician and producer James McAllister for additional instrumentation and production, and were released in 2006 on the follow–up album The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album. Among these outtakes are three separate recordings of the song “Chicago” — including the “Multiple Personality Disorder Version”, which was produced during a subsequent tour. The “Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version” of the song was supposed to appear on the Illinois album, but was changed at the last minute.
λ• Illinois was released on July 4, 2005, through Rough Trade Records in Europe and was distributed domestically by Asthmatic Kitty Records starting July 5, 2005. Although he initially had no plans to perform this material live, less than two weeks after the release of Illinois, Stevens embarked on a North American tour to promote the album, performing with a string section of eight to ten members named the Illinoisemakers. He deliberately chose to avoid television as a promotional tool and focused on the tour performances themselves. He was supported on some dates by opening acts Liz Janes (who is also signed to Asthmatic Kitty) and Laura Veirs as well as Illinois collaborator Shara Worden's solo project My Brightest Diamond. He toured in support of the album again from September through November 2006, this time including dates in several European cities. During the 2006 dates, Stevens and his band transitioned from wearing University of Illinois–themed outfits to butterfly suits and bird wings.
Musical style and thematic elements:
λ• Reviewers have noted similarities between this album and those of musicians and composers in several musical genres — from pop to contemporary classical, even show tunes and jazz–based time signatures. The lyrics and their rich thematic elements have been noted for their literary quality, earning comparisons to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman.
λ• Reviewers of Illinois have compared Stevens’ style to Steve Reich, Vince Guaraldi, the Danielson Famile, Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Death Cab for Cutie. Stevens’ use of large orchestral arrangements in his music — much of it played by himself through the use of multi–track recording — has been noted by several reviewers. Rolling Stone summarized the musical influences of Illinois, saying “the music draws from high school marching bands, show tunes and ambient electronics; we can suspect Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is an oft–played record in the Stevens household, since he loves to echo it in his long instrumental passages.” A review in The A.V. Club referred to some of the vocal work as “regressively twee communalism”, but found Stevens’ music overall to be “highly developed”. The song “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” uses a saxophone part from “Close to Me” by The Cure.
λ• The creation of Illinois marked a shift in Stevens’ emphasis on songwriting and studio work toward live performance and more abstract concepts of motion and sound — subsequent tours and albums emphasized electronic music and modern dance over the indie folk material on Michigan and Illinois. He has ceased writing songs about individual characters with straightforward narratives or concept albums and briefly considered quitting the music business entirely after creating and promoting this album. He also found that the way in which he listened to music had changed after producing Illinois:
λ• “I think now I listen more as a technician and a researcher. I’m always hearing music in terms of what I can take out of it, and I think I’ve always listened like that. I have a hard time just listening for pleasure. I’m much less about instinct, and more of a utilitarian listener. Like, what is the use of this song? What is the usefulness of this melody for this theme or statement? What are they doing that’s unusual sounding, and how can I learn from that?” — Sufjan Stevens, 2006
λ• Stevens is a classically trained oboist and his knowledge of classical and baroque music influenced many of his arrangements. Stevens himself has noted the influence of composers Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Edvard Grieg; along with contemporary composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. The music on this album was written to be grandiose, to match the history of the territory. Stevens used time signature changes in the composition of Illinois for dynamic effect — for instance, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” begins with a 5/4 time signature and then changes to a standard 4/4 later in the song.
λ• Many of the lyrics in Illinois make references to persons, places, and events related to the state of the same name. “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” is about a UFO sighting by police officers near Highland, Illinois, where several persons reported seeing a large triangular object with three lights flying at night. “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” makes reference to the World’s Columbian Exposition, which took place in Chicago in 1893.
λ• “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” documents the story of the 1970s Chicago–based serial killer of the same name. Several lyrics make explicit references to events in his life: “[w]hen the swingset hit his head” refers to an event in Gacy’s childhood, when a swing hit his head and caused a blood clot in his brain; “He dressed up like a clown for them / with his face paint white and red” alludes to the nickname given to Gacy — the “Killer Clown”; and “He put a cloth on their lips / Quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth” references Gacy’s use of chloroform to subdue and molest his victims. The song ends with the narrator turning inward with the lyrics: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” Stevens stated in a 2009 interview with Paste that “we’re all capable of what [Gacy] did.”
λ• “Casimir Pulaski Day” interweaves a personal story with the state holiday Casimir Pulaski Day. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” makes references to Superman, whose fictional hometown of Metropolis was partially modeled after Chicago (the town of Metropolis, Illinois has also capitalized on this association). Jessica Hooper of the Chicago Reader noted that Ray Middleton — who was the first actor to play the comic book superhero — was also born in Chicago. “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” makes references to ghost towns of Illinois. Stevens relates experiences from a summer camp he went to as a child in Michigan for “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, but moved the locale to Illinois for the sake of the album. The track “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” includes references to Decatur, Illinois, but Stevens stated the track also acted as “an exercise in rhyme schemes”. Some references to Decatur included in the song were alligator sightings in the area, the equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, and a flood that exhumed a graveyard of soldiers from the Civil War.
λ• Other allusions to the state’s people, places, and events include the Black Hawk War, author Carl Sandburg, Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, the Sangamon River, the Chicago Cubs, the Sears Tower dubbed “Seer’s Tower” (now called Willis Tower), and the localities of Jacksonville, Peoria, Metropolis, Savanna Caledonia, Secor, Magnolia, Kankakee, Evansville, and the several locations named Centerville, Illinois. During the tour following the release of Illinois, Stevens’ band wore cheerleader outfits based on those of the University of Illinois.
λ• Divya Srinivasan created the album artwork, depicting a variety of Illinois–related themes, including Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, the Sears Tower, and Black Hawk. λ• The album cover reads, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise!” as a wordplay on the common mispronunciation of the state’s name as “ill–i–NOYZ” and a reference to the Slade song “Cum On Feel the Noize” made famous in the United States by the metal band Quiet Riot. The text on the cover caused some confusion over the actual title of the album—it is officially titled Illinois, as opposed to Come on Feel the Illinoise or Illinoise. Paste listed Illinois as having the seventh best album art of the decade 2000–2009. The album also won the PLUG Independent Music Award for Album Art/Packaging of the Year in 2006.
Sales figures and chart performance:
λ• In its first week of sales, Illinois sold 9,000 copies, 20% coming from online sales. Overall, the album sold more than 100,000 copies by November 2005 and over 300,000 by the end of 2009. It was the first Sufjan Stevens release to place on the Billboard 200, reaching No. 121 within eight weeks on the chart. It also placed number one on Billboard’'s “Heatseekers Albums” list and number four on the “Independent Albums” list, remaining on them for 32 and 39 weeks respectively.
λ• Netherlands Ultratop #80
λ• Norway VG–lista #34
λ• United States US Billboard 200 #121
λ• Top Heatseekers #1
λ• Independent Albums #4
λ• Sufjan Stevens — acoustic guitar; piano; Wurlitzer; bass guitar; drums; electric guitar; oboe; alto saxophone; flute; banjo; glockenspiel; accordion; vibraphone; alto, sopranino, soprano, and tenor recorders; Casiotone MT–70; sleigh bells; shaker; tambourine; triangle; electronic organ; vocals; arrangement; engineering; recording; production
λ• Julianne Carney — violin
λ• Alan Douches — mastering at West West Side Music, Tenafly, New Jersey
λ• Jon Galloway — remixing on "Chicago" (To String Remix)
λ• Marla Hansen — viola
λ• The Illinoisemaker Choir — backing vocals and clapping on "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!'", "Chicago", "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts", "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!", and "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders"
• Tom Eaton
• Jennifer Hoover
• Katrina Kerns
• Beccy Lock
• Tara McDonnell
λ• Maria Bella Jeffers — cello
λ• Katrina Kerns — backing vocals on "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois", "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", "Jacksonville", "Prairie Fire That Wanders About", "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!", "The Seer's Tower", "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders", and "The Avalanche"
λ• James McAlister — drums, drum engineering
λ• Craig Montoro — trumpet, backing vocals on "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"
λ• Rob Moose — violin
λ• Matt Morgan — backing vocals on “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
λ• Daniel and Elin Smith — backing vocals and clapping on "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!"
λ• Divya Srinivasan — artwork
λ• Shara Worden — backing vocals on "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois", “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", "Casimir Pulaski Day", "Prairie Fire That Wanders About", "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!", "The Seer's Tower", "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders", and "The Avalanche"
Andy Gill, Uncut; Score: 5
BY JONATHAN KEEFE ON JUNE 30, 2005, SLANT MAGAZINE; SCORE: *****
By Amanda Petrusich; July 4, 2005, PITCHFORK; SCORE: 9.2