Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise

Sparkling second instalment of epic 50-state album cycle. Prodigous doesn’t quite cover it

When [a]Sufjan Stevens[/a] picked up his banjo and announced his intention to write an album for each one of America’s 50 states, it probably all seemed like a right laugh. No doubt he’d had a couple of ales down his local and was channelling the same sort of booze-addled self-belief that normally pre-empts a phrase like, “A tenner says I can swim across the Thames.” Right now, though, in the cold light of sobriety, with 48 states still to document and blisters all over his best plucking finger, he probably just wants a day off. Which is tough, because this record shows that Sufjan’s gargantuan ambition is easily matched by his talent.

‘Illinoise’, then, is the Michigan multi-instrumentalist’s fifth LP, following on from last year’s ‘Seven Swans’, a record so sublime it made yours truly buy a banjo. It’s also the second in his 50 states project, the first being 2004’s ‘Greetings From Michigan’. Now, you’d think that with such a daunting task facing him he might try and hold a few pretty melodies back; store them in the vaults for that notoriously difficult 37th album. But no. Instead, here’s a whopping 22 more tracks, each constructed with the same attention to detail and fragile grace of Lambchop or Nick Drake.

The first thing that strikes you about ‘Illinoise’ is that Sufjan’s a brainy little fucker. This is a record so well researched that the guy actually studied early immigration records before writing it. One minute he’s singing about Abraham Lincoln ( ‘Decatur, Or Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!’ ), the next writing simple love songs ( ‘Chicago’) or conjuring poetic metaphors concerning America’s tallest skyscraper (spooky piano ballad ‘The Seer’s Tower’). You could write vast tomes on it, so allow us to pick out some highlights. ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise! Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition, Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream’ (the titles are a dream for journalists paid by the word) is astonishing. It begins as a gloriously upbeat 42nd Street musical, then breaks (bizarrely) into the sax refrain from The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’, before a sumptuous string section lifts it towards the heart-melting whispered refrain “I cried myself to sleep last night”. Or how about ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, a moving account of the infamous ‘Killer Clown’ who murdered homosexuals throughout ’70s Chicago? Here, Sufjan reveals himself as a master storyteller, vividly recalling details like the way, “The neighbours they adored him” before the bone-chilling revelation, “Twenty seven people/Even more/They were boys/With their cars/Summer jobs/Oh my God”. That last bit hits a trembling falsetto, as if your heartstrings weren’t already being tugged from their arteries.

As well as writing this record, Sufjan also recorded, engineered and produced it. Given that tossing out a half-baked impression of your last album every couple of years is seen as some sort of accepted work-rate these days, such workaholic freakishness should be applauded. And what a sound he’s constructed: the stripped-back banjo plucking of ‘Seven Swans’ has been replaced with orchestral swells, military drumbeats and hymnal backing vocals. He also has a way with circling piano lines that slowly build into explosive all-girl choruses. You’d have to hunt like a bastard to find an independent record that sounds this lush. And, at almost 75 minutes in length, you’d also have to hunt to find one quite so epic. It’s probably too long; you’ll struggle to ingest it in one sitting. But complaining about too much good music seems daft in a world where The Bravery exist.

[a]Sufjan Stevens[/a], then, is the rarest of talents: prolific, intelligent and – most importantly – brimming with heart-wrenching melodies. ‘Illinoise’ might not end up his best record, but it’s his masterpiece so far; a staggering collection of unspeakably precious music. Let’s just hope he doesn’t stop when he gets to number 50.

Tim Jonze