Sufjan Steven’s Illinois: not the real thing

Since its release, critics and music lovers everywhere have been hyping Sufjan Steven’s Illinois as the great album of 2005, even a revitalization of indie rock. This album, however, isn’t that. But the album deserves respect as an achievement of some sort, so I’m going to attempt what I believe is an honest discussion. After a couple months of rave reviews I decided to buy it, and gave it a couple listens. The first time through I was interested but not blown away. The album is indeed somewhat clever—especially in its song titles—and an original creation in its own right. But the name-dropping and gimmicks get old, even if they are the flair that holds Stevens’ apart from others.

A couple more listens began exposing the weaknesses of the album. The lyrics are contrived and forced. I enjoy lyrics that deliver deliberate and descriptive narrative when done properly (Try Tallahassee by The Mountain Goats for some excellent lyrics in a concept album), but Stevens’ prose comes through as awkward at best. The stories he tells aren’t anything special, or particularly well told. For all the hype around “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, I’d take a yarn woven by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists or Craig Finn of The Hold Steady over “Gacy”—or any other song from Illinois—any day of the week.

Beyond lyrics, the music itself is contrived. Stevens applied some amateur theory, making it different from your standard indie music, then brought in some orchestration and fanfare to make it sound big, and let the album ride on it, but its unable to evoke the feelings or histories it is presumably meant to. If you want grand themes that work, try Arcade Fire’s Funeral on for size, or if you’re willing to go back a few decades, Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd. When Illinios invokes folk themes, it unfortunately breaks utterly, these spots are times when the album does indeed become nearly unlistenable. The redeeming fact is the use of string parts to connect songs and preserve the album as one opus.

More than anything vocals are a matter of opinion, so if you absolutely love Sufjan’s voice, I won’t try to tell you otherwise. But again, I feel that Stevens is attempting to deliver a soft-spoken singing performance that doesn’t come through properly. As I see it, Elliott Smith or Avey Tare (of Animal Collective) deliver much more inspired vocal performances, both in similar but unique soft-spoken ways. Indeed, their vocals ride over better musical backdrops as well.

Song for song, there is nothing special about Illinois. The songs are average creations that any moderately successful artist is just as likely to deliver. That the lyrics and music themselves leave much to be desired doesn’t help put any of the songs from Illinois on any top 10 list of mine. Even as simple catchy tunes, nothing sticks in my head, or gives me any sort of inspiration beyond double clicking another song in my library. A breakway hit might redeem the album, if in a way unintended by Stevens, however none of the songs stands much above the rest. As a concept album, Illinois is able to invoke similar themes throughout, which isn’t as easy as it seems, but these themes aren’t inspired enough to merit such a lengthy opus.

Now, as for tying it all together, this is what can make albums truly great. (I’d again point to you to any of the examples above for artists that have created truly great albums). Sufjan Stevens put care into the production of Illinois. The recording and mixing is near flawless, you’ll never hear something that sounds just plain wrong or out of place. For this reason, the album deserves respect and recognition. However, even if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Illinois remains lacking. Perhaps call this album a truly great recording of generally mediocre songs. Considering Sufjans half-joking threat to compose such an album for each of the 50 states in the Union (48 to go), I’d suggest passing on Illinois altogether.

Leave a Comment