Music has become more important to me again. I mean in the sense of approaching it as an art form I can seek out an intentional experience with, and not just as background noise, which is what it kinda slid towards in the years since the halcyon years of my late teens-early twenties where I found myself sticking my nose into as many developments in popular music as possible. I suppose the trade-off was a deeper appreciation of movies, and hence my many attempts at amateur film critic here.
But in the past year or so I’ve found myself revisiting a lot of old albums I used to love, and more often than not rekindling those loves, and feeling more enthused about expanding my horizons to new stuff as well. And besides, writing about music is something I haven’t done much of here. So Josh the amateur music critic may be rearing his head.
In this case, I want to talk about Sufjan Stevens’ 2004 album, Illinois, which is something of a departure in taste for me: usually when I look to something that broadly falls under the “indie” category, I’m interested in people making strange, obscene noises with their electric guitars, and not a sensitive-sounding guy with his mannered, Brian Wilson-ish baroque pop. Also the album art rubs me the wrong way.
Anyway, Illinois is a concept album which paints an aural picture of, well, the state of Illinois and its history, as well as weaving some things in which seem more personal to Stevens. It’s also – and I didn’t know this going in for the first time – rather strongly influenced by minimalism, as in Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and the like. Which seems like an unusual aesthetic choice for an Americana-centric album. But in thinking about it, I find it makes some sense: minimalism is probably the only truly idiomatic contribution America has made to the western classical music tradition.
It’s taken a few listens to adjust: there’s an air of artifice which always threatened to get in the way for me, but there’s a warm romanticism here which really resonated with me once I got used to Stevens’ aesthetic tics. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” may be a goofy hipster thing to name a song, but the thing itself is a genuinely sweet reminiscence of boyhood; “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a poignant meditation on God and human suffering, “Chicago” is a lovely anthem of the melancholy-yet-hopeful sort and so forth.
As suggested above, there are some overt Christian themes and images here (Stevens is apparently an Episcopalian), without the thing tipping over into becoming “Christian music”, as it were. Which is rather refreshing, though I still feel like I’m trying to unpack how what he’s doing here relates to the broader Illinois conceit.
Now that I’ve had a month to absorb it, Illinois does seem like one of those albums that could become a favourite over time. At the very least, I can see myself returning to it more regularly than Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. It’s not perfect: Stevens is a little too nice of a guy to completely pull off a song about John Wayne Gacy Jr (although I appreciate the original sin-ish undertones to the lyrics), and the whole thing is just a tad bloated. But one of the things I’ve noticed is that a favourite album almost needs to risk a certain degree of badness in order to make the jump from appreciation to love. There’s a humanizing element to failure and overreach, I suppose (and we also all know how fond I can be of artists who do have a reach that’s a little bit longer than their grasp). But anyway, who knows? It could represent an aesthetic turning point, with me becoming a lover of all things musically twee and precious.
I still don’t like the cover art, though.