A Review of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois

Once upon a time, last summer, I had several free online music downloads. I decided that I’d use them to check out something totally unfamiliar, and asked around on the internet for recommendations. One suggestion that came in was The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us! by Sufjan (pronounced soof-yon) Stevens. One thing you’ll notice at this point is that Sufjan Stevens’ song titles are not common or conventional. This is a good indicator of his music.

After listening to the sample of the recommended song my immediate response was, “This is like playtime music for three year olds.” Two days later I came crawling back in sackcloth and ashes, both feet firmly in my mouth. Thanks to two free downloads from amazon.com (http://artist.amazon.com/illinois), I was hooked. I remember quite clearly the moment I was converted. I was listening to one of the songs (Casmir Pulaski Day) and said to my wife, “What do you think of this?” My question was admission of defeat.

Let me pause for a moment to offer a warning. This is not simple, cotton candy music. It requires you, the listener, to give something of yourself in order to appreciate and enjoy it. If you aren’t willing to give it a chance, and listen to several of the songs two or three times, then save yourself the time and effort; don’t listen even once. You’ll only walk away thinking it’s weird music, and make a mental note to take IQ reviews with a nice sized grain of salt.

Sonically speaking, I find it very difficult to fit Illinois into any single genre. There are elements of folk music, with acoustic guitar and banjo leading some songs. Others have more of a modern rock flair, with distorted electric guitar. There’s even a touch of classical music, with choral arrangements over layers of strings and horns. Then there’s the droll description one friend shared with my wife, “It sounds like a carnival”. It really is a mixed bag, which defies categorization.

If forced to describe Sufjan Stevens’ sound I would use the single phrase, “unsettlingly beautiful”. The artful, often complex arrangements coupled with the unique, ethereal vocal stylings form a dissonance (which Stevens confesses is intentional) that makes you ask yourself, “Is this good, quality songwriting? Or is it just silly?” My initial reaction, it turns out, isn’t entirely in left field. This tension, which is only intensified by the lyrical content, causes us to examine the music and ask if it is any good. And upon such examination, we discover that it is quite good, and worthy of yet more attention.

Sufjan is a Christian, but his music is not what can be classified as Contemporary Christian Music. You won’t find any Christian radio stations playing his songs, for instance. But, if you’re at all like me, you’ll take that as a compliment. This absence from the CCM scene isn’t due to a lack of Christian themes and imagery, though. From the depraved nature of man in the haunting John Wayne Gacy, Jr., to our recreation in Chicago; from our need for a Savior in The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts, to a celebration of Pentecost in Predatory Wasp, Illinois is chock full of elements of the Christian Faith. But it is not explicit. Like I said, it isn’t classified as CCM. Stevens is much more subtle and organic than to whack you upside the head with these things. Some may question whether they are even present, suggesting instead that I have pulled them, like a rabbit, from my hat. I can only suggest that you find a copy of Illinois, settle down for an hour and a quarter of active listening, and judge for yourself.

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