It’s a peculiar notion – rediscovery. With regard to music, and in the context of this column, I guess it’s deployed in an entirely personal sense. This column essentially takes the form of a bi-weekly love story. It’s all rather formulaic; I fall head over heals for some twelve-track stunner, ditch it in the dead of night for some synth-ridden Pitchfork-bate, only to return weeks, months, years later aghast that I ever could have left. It’s little surprise then, that the more I’ve thought about material for this column, the more I’ve found myself returned to those albums that had inspired the most profoundly emotional response. Musicality is one thing – an honourable thing – but a thing about which I have next to no talent for, or knowledge of. Emotions though, are another thing. I have those. I can do those in buckets. Sad, happy, confused…you know? The emotions.
I can think of few artists who appreciate emotion more than Sufjan Stevens. In March of this year Stevens marked his fifteenth year as a recording artist with the release of Carrie and Lowell. It’s an album that essentially serves as a grieving process, documenting his attempt to come to terms with the death of his mother, who passed away in 2012 as a result of stomach cancer. Brandon Stosuy, writing for Pitchfork, claimed it to be Stevens’ best work to date.
This week’s column isn’t about Carrie & Lowell. Nonetheless Stosuy’s assertion inevitably inspired me to dig a bit through Stevens’ seven-album back catalogue. I guess in part I was hoping to present some sort of challenge, not in person I hasten to add, but for an artist as established as Sufjan Stevens it seemed a fairly controversial claim. It’s as a result of my digging that we arrive - finally - at the subject. Illinois, or to give it its full title – Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Come On Feel The Illinoise! may not be Steven’s most emotional piece, it probably isn’t even his best. What it just might be though, is one of his most romantic.
Romance is a funny thing. Whack it into Google and you will be smothered by silhouetted figures, love hearts, and the occasional flower; interpersonal romance can be ever so mundane. But what is romance actually? Oxford gives us a few definitions, one of which catches the eye: “Love, especially when sentimental or idealised.”
Illinois isn’t a conventionally romantic story – although in some sense it may be – it’s the story of one man’s love for his homeland. Stevens’ relationship with America is intriguing; far from being the conventional patriot, he’s all too conscious of the holes in the American dream, the pitfalls of bombastic jingoism, the harsh realities of life.
But this is romance – sentimental and idealised. The album trundles round the States, from Jacksonville to Chicago, Rock River to Decatur, with an air of nomadic appreciation. This is more than an homage to Stevens’ wanderlust, it tells the deeply complicated story of a man bound to the places that formed the building blocks of his childhood – that made him the person he is – and how he can reconcile this relationship with his confusion and disappointment at what it has become.
In a way Illinois is a series of bizarre paradoxes - lament and celebration, expansive scope and intimate reality. When he toured the release of the album, the production of the live performances was deliberately theatrical, almost Broadway-esque. It may sound rather bizarre, especially when you consider the conventional description of Sufjan Stevens as a folk act. When you listen to the album, it’s a theme that blends seamlessly with the expansive orchestral overtures that knit the album together. Illinois is a piece that is simultaneously musically grandiose and emotionally intimate.
Quite how Sufjan Stevens manages to inject such potent, and yet varied, emotionality into his albums is a question a musically stunted reviewer such as myself is not equipped to answer. Mine is more the role of an appreciative sponge - I can only be thankful for albums like Illinois, that give me a chance to soak it all in.