8 min read

on illinois by sufjan stevens

in which i spent 2000 words saying some things about this beloved album.

For those who don't know, I am from the great state of Illinois. I spent most of my life there. I chose this album because the cover looks like the shitty mural in any over-zealous suburban Chicago pizza joint. This thing has everything. Al Capone, the Chicago skyline, the goat? The vinyl gatefold opens up to reveal John Wayne Gacy, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, the white tailed deer.. It's too much. I'm staring at Abe's eyes right now. Across the room. Haunting me.

The art looks to me like somewhere between scary mural portraiture and a children's book. Which is to say I find it off putting and if it was animated I wouldn't be able to watch it at night because the eyes would freak me out too bad. It's also perfect.

The Genius album sidebar bio calls it, "the second album in the so-called 50 States Project, which later turned out to be a stunt." Which begs the question.. did people in the year of our lord 2005 genuinely think Sufjan was going to write 50 albums about all the states? Like, I didn't know this album was funny (it is, I can't stress this enough, the hardest I've laughed listening to music in a long time) and I was all of 7 years old in 2005, but surely everyone knew it was a stunt?

Maybe not. Let me know.

Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois

This song has made me think about how if aliens were to come down to us people would definitely think it's God or the second coming or something. Like, humans will do anything to confirm their existing bias. Anything. I suppose the same thing could be said for if a huge biblical event DID occur. There'd be like 10 million people using it to prove their UFO conspiracy theory.

Something about the flute is really, really funny to me.

The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'

An instrumental track I feel nothing about with an aspirationally long title.

Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)

I think the play on mispronouncing Illinois is very funny because it's so real. However, when I was studying in France one of my professors, Pierre (for real), pronounced Illinois in the most indefensibly French way I think anyone has ever said anything.

This man looked at me and said Chicago, Illinois as, "Sheek-ah-go, lee-lin-wah" just say that out loud. Fuck every dude who lives in Paris, but I think about that everyday. L'Illinois...

Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition

I love this Peanuts intro. That rocks. Great melodies all over. And the World's Fair is an evergreen Chicago topic. "Like Cream of Wheat invented the Ferris Wheel" is brilliant comedy.

He doesn't touch on the serial killer thing which surprises me but, honestly, is a bit played out anyway, right? Even in 2005? Or maybe Sufjan was ahead of his time discussing how capitalism is the real enemy, not the man murdering people in his weirdo hotel. H.H. Holmes is merely a distraction. Keep your eye on the real enemy, folks.

He also asks a compelling question: what would Frank Lloyd Wright say? (WWFLWS)

Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream

Carl Sandburg is a poet I love very much. My father bought me a copy of his collected works from an Arkansas university's library for my 17th birthday. He has so much boring writing about Illinois. I think this song is funny in concept, less so in execution which is a disappointment for me.

Second half of this song is a bummer. Comparing yourself to John Wayne Gacy is such a bummer, dude.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

It is a work of true talent to write a song this funny about John Wayne Gacy. I've been told this song isn't meant to be funny, but I can't accept that. The delivery on, "oh my GOD" is so funny. The way he says, "he dressed up like a clown for them" makes me laugh so hard.

What John Wayne Gacy did to those people was horrible, there's no getting around that, but this minstrel indie recount of Gacy's life is just.. it's comical! It makes me laugh every time. It's still a bummer to compare yourself to him, though. You didn't have to do that.

Jacksonville

See, this song is very good. It really is. But there is so much going on in these lyrics. The hubris to make this many disparate historical references in one song. Andrew Jackson, the Underground Railroad, Hellen Keller.. I understand it's like a big history of the town and an allegory, but it's so ambitious and I question whether it pays off.

While the music, in my opinion, is much easier to take seriously I find it impossible to believe anybody would put this song on and want to listen to it.

A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons

This is a perfect title for a song.

Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!

Another very funny song. I like that it starts with an instrumental that would be at home on an album by The Chicks then immediately into stepmom hate. I don't think the midwest wins on most stepmoms to hate per capita. I do think the midwest might be home to the most children who grew up to regret hating their stepmom, though. I think he was right to take the song there.

Kind but not nice, after all.

ya don't say?

One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' for the Pullman!!

Woo!! Trains!! Woo!!

Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!

This is where the album takes a turn for me. The sketch comedy tone pulls out of the station, if you will, and in its place is just a very good song.

This song is kind of the "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" of this album. Objectively, maybe the best song, right? But somehow I like it less in context than on its own. It's lush and has so much depth, but it benefits least from its place on an Illinois themed concept record and that falls flat a bit for me.

Casimir Pulaski Day

In contrast, I think this song achieves being a really great, listenable song while not feeling awkward in context thanks in part to the title, but also a more natural reference to the official state bird of Illinois. Really devastating track, but not gratuitously so. I like the horns best here, too.

This is the best song on this album, in my own personal opinion.

To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament

I'd like to hear the idea

The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts

There are wonderful melodies in this song, but we return to sketch comedy. This song makes me laugh. The inclusion of Superman is so funny! I understand the whole Metropolis naming thing, but I feel like this should have been a huge indicator he would not be doing all the states. Superman firmly belongs to Kansas and somewhere in the Northeast. I understand he's not like literally talking about Superman, but I simply don't feel Superman has a place in Illinois.

Anyway, I agree with the genius comments that make it clear Sufjan is being gay in this song and NOT for god. So good for him.

Prairie Fire That Wanders About (Peoria)

Pure comedy. Musical theatre.

A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze

I can imagine coming up with these names was really fun. These are the names on the vinyl packaging and they're so over the top I couldn't not use them.

The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!

A really beautiful song. Almost absurdly beautiful. A real high point for the orchestral compositions on the album if you ask me. It's the one I have the most fun listening to of all the non-comedic tracks.

My friend Eric said they, "like the gay wasp song" and this song is also that.

They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!

Spelling in songs is a really hard thing to pull off doing. Very few can. Gwen, Fergie... but Sufjan? I'm not so sure. Not to make a severely outdated television reference, but this song is another one where it feels like a musical performance on Community or something. Most of this album feels like something the characters on that show would get roped into putting on because someone read a bunch of books based around Illinois despite never going there.

Or maybe I just really don't like spelling in songs. I don't know. It's about here I'd like the album to wrap up. No such luck.

Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell & In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth

I'm running out of quippy things to say about Illinois and I just don't really care enough about these string arrangements. In This Temple is more hymnal. Religion as a theme and reference point doesn't do a lot for me. I recognize maybe that distances me from Sufjan. I feel that way about Pedro the Lion, too. I don't think I can ever really feel it the way some people do because my parents started leaving me home alone pretty young to instead take my sisters to volleyball tournaments on Sundays.

The Seer's Tower

Putting a song this slow this deep into the album is torture for me personally. It's a very well written song, obviously. I miss the funny songs. Take me back to John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier – Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)

Back to a fun Peanuts intro! This one is so cute. As far as I'm concerned, this could and should be the end. There's a big structure thing with the whole two part song thing three songs in and three songs from the end. I just feel like it feels like the end!

For folks at home, do we align with the Cubs or the Sox? I think the Ricketts family is reprehensible, obviously, but my family has always been a Cubs household. Every time I want to cry I watch this video about the last play of the 2016 World Series. Sports are kinda like religion.

Anyway, allegedly this song references "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a Sox player who tried to fix the World Series in the 20's. However, my brain immediately went to Joe Jackson, father of the Jackson Five, who has strong ties to East Chicago and Gary, Indiana. The Region is just Illinois, kind of. Has more of a claim to Illinois than Superman.

Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few

Had to get in some jazz references. I guess here is as good a place as any.

Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run

Finally, it ends. Unlike a lot of the instrumental tracks on this album, I find this one really fascinating and compelling. A pure, emotional, grand fever pitch of a song. I like it very much in spite of my noted lack of attention span or inclination toward music without words or over 2 minutes long.

This album has more comments than any other album I've ever really read through on Genius. It is half sketch comedy, half unbearably great. I will never listen to it again.

Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like when there are new episodes of the Endless Scroll Podcast: @mirandareinert. I also have a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get some free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! Might want to get in on that! But as always, thanks for reading!