Illinois and ILLINOIS

As I prepare to move next weekend (a whole block away!), I've spent many hours sorting through all my crap, not to mention additional piles of crap left behind by past tenants. This is the first time in Boston that I'm leaving an apartment but not any roommates behind. It's an exhausting process, and it’s equally staggering to think of how much *stuff* we accumulate... where can it all possibly go? Is this why we have overflowing landfills and densely-stocked thrift shops?

So, place the blame for my lack of posts as of late on the upcoming move. I've been craving to write about my trip to Chicago last weekend. I've now traveled there three times in the past three years, and this was my most enjoyable and action-packed trip so far. I primarily went to see my parents (who drove up from Des Moines) and two of my oldest friends (one of whom drove down from Milwaukee).

In approximately sixty hours, I managed to reach the top of the John Hancock tower (much taller and more spectacular than Boston's), stroll through Navy Pier, find out what an "Executive" martini is, visit Lincoln Park, Millennium Park, the Nature Museum (with its wondrous butterfly exhibit), and the glorious Superdawg, dine at my first Churrascaria, and even catch a screening of THE ARISTOCRATS at the Loews Esquire downtown.

However, more so than on my past trips to the Windy City, I could conceivably see myself living there one day—if I ever desired to return to the Midwest. I've spent almost eight years in Boston, and I still love being here, but the high cost of living is starting to wear on me like a heavy, damp, fraying suede overcoat.


I've also wanted to write about Sufjan Stevens' new album, ILLINOIS. If you're at all familiar with this blog, you know that his previous release, SEVEN SWANS, was my favorite record of 2004. The new one, however, is aesthetically more of a follow-up to MICHIGAN, which came out in 2003.

Both MICHIGAN and ILLINOIS are lengthy, ambitious song cycles that daringly blend swatches of Americana with autobiography, all of it set to a kitchen-sink musical menagerie incorporating rapturous strings, horns, Community Theater, and more glockenspiel than you're destined to find outside a high school marching band. Stevens has said he'd like to complete an album for every single state in the union, although whether he actually reaches this lofty/foolish goal is, by now, beside the point. I've listened to ILLINOIS about 10 or 20 times over the past six weeks, and as with the entirely different, stripped-down SEVEN SWANS, I'm still carefully piecing it together. That the former is a whole half-hour longer than the latter doesn’t make it any easier.

But now that I’m familiar with all the melodies, if not all of the song titles, some of which stretch out to more than fifteen (and in one case, fifty) words, I can say that ILLINOIS is a significant improvement on the template set in motion by MICHIGAN. It also retains (and puts to fine use) some of SEVEN SWANS' intimacy and fragility. I briefly considered going through it track by track (as I recently did with Saint Etienne), but I’d probably end up with a monstrous, 5,000 word piece. I also thought about making a laundry list of things I love about the album (such as the surging strings that follow the first six lone xylophone notes of “Chicago”) , but that wouldn’t begin to explain the particular, unique essence of this album or exactly how it makes me feel.

Admittedly, Stevens is bit of a nut job—there’s the laughingly lengthy song titles, but also a fair share of bad puns (“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”), the funk/disco pastiche about zombies that includes a cheerleader chant of the state’s name, and an instrumental finale which heads off into Phillip Glass/Steve Reich territory for real. But Stevens is also a bit of genius, and to complain about the length of the album and its titles or an entire cavalcade of quirks is to miss the boat entirely. After all, madness and brilliance compliment each other like the compartments of a Pullman car (which Stevens gives "one last ‘woo-hoo!’" to at one instance), and when he puts on a straight face for the suitably creepy but multifaceted “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or the remarkably joyous and sad “Casimir Pulaski Day”, all those quirks quietly fade away. On a knockout track like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in all the layers of vocals, flutes, melodies, and symphonic glissandos as they coalesce into a stunning, swooning whole.

I’m still uncertain as to whether this is a “better” album than SEVEN SWANS—time may provide an answer to that. But, like all of Stevens’ other albums, ILLINOIS resembles precious little else. He’s quietly amassing a distinct, impressive body of work that, decades from now, could position him as a Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan of his time.