Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Asthmatic Kitty, 2005
Acquired: Live Show, New, 2005
I bought this when Sufjan Stevens played a really boring show at the Bottleneck. I'm sure everyone else loved it, but it felt completely devoid of emotion and sucked all of the feeling out of every single song, in particular the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” which I still can't really listen to today without thinking it's kind of overblown. While the record doesn't have the Superman on it, it does have a sticker of balloons placed over the Superman which Stevens wasn't allowed to use due to copyright infringement. The balloons were later added as part of the art proper, so this is apparently more valuable, but less valuable than the Superman cover. I tried to sell it at Love Garden once, because I'd seen it go for $60 and they tried to give me like, $8 for it and I was like hell no. Besides, it's a good record. A damn good record. A really fucking good record, and I'm glad I didn't sell it. However, it does rack the subtle grace of Michigan. It has some super sad, pretty songs, but they don't quite reach the beauty of say, “Romulus” or “Vito's Ordination Song.” There are no transcendent songs here. In fact, there are a few goofy songs which, despite being masterfully composed, are kind of irksome. “Jacksonville” is one of them, with its “Andrew Jackson all I'm askin'” chorus. It makes the record feel too self-conscious, like I can see Stevens poring over a book of Illinois history wheras he seemed to know Michigan so well from growing up there. Actually, I lied. “The Seer's Tower” is transcendent, the record's just has a bit of fluff (“Decatur”) and a bit of chaff (all the instrumental breaks, which tries its best to establish the record as some master opus). Ok, and “Casimir Pulaski Day” is pretty great too, but only because it doesn't try too hard, which is ultimately the record's greatest flaw. It often sounds like it is actively trying to be a great record. Apparently it worked, topping many year end lists including Pitchfork's. I was enamored with it too, but as the years have passed it sounds like a record that people will remember fondly, yet won't hold up in such high regard as they one did. This aside, it does have some amazing songs. The aforementioned “The Seer's Tower,” kills with its resonating piano and the build that boils over into the haunting falling action. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us” is one that I didn't get into until way after buying the record, but it proves to be one of the most affective songs on the record. I distinctly recall many an evening or afternoon spent falling asleep to that side of the record on, as I tended to drift off to that gorgeous little number. Having listened to more Steve Reich since I last listened to this record, I can hear his influence very distinctly (particularly on “Predatory Wasp”), and it feels more like imitation rather than innovation, as it was commonly confused for. The C side of the record is by far the most consistent, and the one that rarely pulls any goofy tricks. The groovy “They Are Night Zombies!!!” is another standout. Despite loving that there's an extra track on the vinyl release (the excellent “The Avalanche,” which was the title track off of the b-sides disc that followed this record), it's just too fucking long and I get bored with it every single time.
And of course, this wouldn't be complete without evidence of this record's backlash: A Children's Treasury of misguided Sufjan Stevens covers:
OK, this one is actually pretty good, but I am a sucker for this sort of thing.
Actually, that one was pretty good too. Though this next one doesn't come from Illinois I needed to find a really corny one to end on: