he first thing you notice is the horrendously awesome title on the front, SUFJAN STEVENS invites you to: Come on feel the ILLINOISE. The jewel case spine, you notice as you turn it over, says simply Illinois, which is the name that the album's being advertised as. Then you get to the other side and you're almost ready to throw the disc out, because it's got the longest, worst song titles and subtitles and probably subplots in the titles you've ever seen.
But stick with it on this one. Remember we've been waiting over a year for this very disc, and we know that Stevens at his worst is just an inch from his best. The cutesy titles are the unfortunate result of that unending drive for self-expression, for the release of the personal. Or it’s all just a big joke. If it bothers you that much, call them "Track 1" or the one about the zombies or whatever. Let's just get to the songs.
It's a bit of Michigan redux, which works because it's so uniquely Stevens and so uniquely beautiful. It should feel like there's too much going on, but it never does. Stevens sometimes looks and sounds as if he's some turnip truck's lost ballast, but his sense for arranging remains almost peerless. Violins add mood without being weepy, banjos add flavor without being mountainish, and all the random instruments pull centrifugally toward Stevens, who spins them back out in a single line.
That one about the zombies—despite being that one about the zombies—shows Stevens's precise touch. The music builds and builds, threatening to be too much, threatening to take off, but Stevens cuts everything out in time to expose the song's emotional core:
I know, I know my time is passedThe lyrics aren't brilliant or original, but they hit with surprising force, which comes primarily from the way Stevens has structured the music. He pulls down your guard with the bombast, and the strikes when both he and you are exposed.
I'm not so young, I'm not so fast
I tremble with the nervous thought
Of having been, at last, forgot.
But you're a cold bastard, and you just want to know what zombies have to do with Illinois. Isn't this supposed to be about a state? Well, the difference between Michigan and Illinois is that the first album was about a place that Stevens knew, the Michigan he could lead us through, traipsing or straggling; the new one relies more on the history of the state, and many years ago zombies roamed the land that later almost birthed Abraham Lincoln.
It's like a Romero thing, okay?
But for all the genius, both careful and reckless, that Stevens displays, he still makes a few miscues here. The biggest problem comes with the unbridled triumphalism of too many of these tracks. Michigan succeeded most with whispered cheers ("Michigan! Michigan!"), and Seven Swans used ghostly gospel to reach its heights. On this disc, Stevens just proclaims his musical victory with trumpets and bombast; he doesn't let you feel, seemingly confident that now he can tell you when and what to feel.
And that's not why we played Michigan over and over. We loved digging through the run-down cities, the dying factories and the homeless and finding a way to feel better in the midst of that, to rebuild and reconsider. Now, we get equally well-structured music, but music that, maybe due to its historical leanings or maybe Stevens's emotional detachment from the land, doesn't move us with subtlety. Or maybe we didn't survive the song titles.
But don't despair (lift up your reading-weary head): the tracks are very good, and I (no longer speaking for you) will gladly take some of the overzealous musical emoting if it means I also get the heart the sings at the center of this disc. I'll take the fanfare if I also get the background violin. I'll take "Illinoise" if it means I get Illinois.