Well, I pretty much have to have an opinion on it. Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens has just released the second in a projected series of CDs celebrating our fifty states, and it's all about Illinois.
It just doesn't sound like the Illinois I know.
When I heard that Stevens was including songs about towns I'd spent a lot of time exploring, I became very interested in hearing the CD, and when Pitchfork declared it the best album released thus far in 2005, the stakes were raised. I didn't know much about Sufjan Stevens, so I didn't really know what to expect. The jokey, Slade-referencing title, Come on Feel the Illinoise, and the album cover--festooned with the Chicago skyline, UFOs, Al Capone, and a famous Illinois-identified cartoon character (whose handlers issued a cease-and-desist order that resulted in his likeness being removed from future pressings)--suggests that the record might be fairly humorous...so it wasn't unreasonable to expect something droll and Steve Goodman-esque, considering that I've heard Stevens described as something of a folkie. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
This thing is ornate, man. It's fey and fussy and foo-foo; it makes the Decemberists sound like AC/DC. Sufjan squandered an opportunity to create an artifact for the ages--something that could be enjoyed and understood by Joe Sixpack and maybe even used as a teaching aid--and instead opted to whip up a rococo wedding cake of smug, cutesy-poo math-fluff that'll sail right over the heads of the unpretentious folk who populate the towns he name-checks. Most of the songs' titles are smirky, paragraph-long gusts of exposition--which is enough in itself to keep them from becoming standards or even seeming sincere--and one of them suggests that the orchestra repeat that string arrangement again, "because I don't think they heard it way out in Bushnell." I don't know if Sufjan's been to Bushnell or just picked it at random off a map, but I've been there--and it seems like the kind of town that, for better or worse, wouldn't hesitate to tell you where to stick your string section.
Why couldn't he have come up with a less obtuse song about the UFO's that apparently visited Highland a while back; something as solid and memorable as, say, "Bloody Williamson," the Rockhouse Ramblers' ode to the Charlie Birger gang? Hell, despite its ill-informed reference to the "east side," I'll take "The Night Chicago Died" over this stuff.
You want to hear some Illinois-bred music that really reflects its point of origin? Pocahontas is a tiny town in the shadow of an interstate highway. It consists mainly of a few houses, a couple of antique shops and two or three motel/gas/convenience plazas with illuminated signs so tall that their tops would land outside the city limits if they toppled. For the last thirty or forty years, Pocahontas has provided diesel fuel, clean sheets and three-egg breakfasts to outsiders who are always in the process of rushing off to someplace more important. Grandpa's Ghost is a band native to Pocahontas, and their music, infused with the deep loneliness of Neil Young at his spookiest, can damn well put you right there on the brightly-lit parking lot of the Powhatan Motel at three in the morning, when it might as well be the surface of the moon. They also play some longer and less structured pieces, which is usually the kind of thing I don't have much patience for--but, having been to where they're from, I swear I can hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights and the shudder of trucks on the overpass rising from the band's subtle swells of feedback. It sounds like Pocahontas to me. But that's just one side of the coin, and native daughter Gretchen Wilson's mainstream shitkicker country is just as valid a representation of her hometown. You can walk into a well-stocked record store in St. Louis and walk out with an accurate representation of an all-night party in Pocahontas in one hand, and a sound-painting of a sleepless night in Pocahontas in the other. They both evoke their point of origin with equal accuracy. Playing Come on Feel the Illinoise, try though I might, I can hear nothing but Sufjan Stevens' ego.
Maybe I was expecting too much from Sufjan. If I had any musical talent and a yen to record fifty albums dedicated to the fifty states, I'd recognize the magnitude of the project and try to do something useful with it. I'd take that big road trip, man, and try to put across the feel of the places I'd been; I'd try to give the people I encountered something they could be proud of. This guy is apparently just looking for a template to drape some generally cringeworthy poetry over the kind of lite-classical arrangements Pitchfork wouldn't deign to review if the auteur didn't wear a trucker hat and record for an indie label with a goofy name.