Artist: Sufjan Stevens
If you like: Death Cab for Cutie, Bebo Norman, John Philip Sousa
Anyone who has openly committed to creating 50 albums memorializing each of the United States has automatically gotten my attention. Any artist that can candidly admit their Christian beliefs and not be automatically denounced as creatively unoriginal by secular critics is also worth a good solid listen. Further, any individual who begins his life at the doorstep of his unknowing adoptive parents house in a basket with an “I love you” note attached to his tiny forearm has definitely gained my attention.
The subtle prologue to the album, “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland Illinois,” greets the listener with a short, melodic, delicate, almost haunting introduction to the musical maturity of Sufjan. Graceful keys of a piano tap away skillfully, chased by an excitable flute the weaves it’s way in between the soothing vocals of Sujfan, as it relentlessly pursues the rise and fall of his voice and the piano.
Musically, this album is in a league all it’s own. Unlike a lot of artists who drive their rhythms forward, faster and faster, unrelenting in their pursuit to create a response from their listeners, Sufjan apparently and very deliberately hand picks and leads each note and movement with the skill of an experienced orchestral conductor. One can almost imagine Sufjan Stevens standing at before a podium waving his conductors baton as the music flows, weaves, dips, and dives. At one point you are listening to simple, delicate vocals of Sufjan and suddenly his voice is received by a response of a chorus of vocals, handclaps, trumpets and strings. To sum up the sound, imagine for a moment Death Cab For Cutie, Iron and Wine, Bebo Norman, a marching band (yes, you read that right), and a chorus wrapped all up in one neat package. It really cannot be described effectively—it must be experienced.
Moving from track to track, we are guided through a story of—what else—the great State of Illinois. With an album cover that invites you to “Come on feel the Illinoise” (fulfilling State Album #2 of 50 in his ambitious quest) one could not expect much less. Songs topics range from famous and not so famous cities in the state, to local history and infamous characters.
Listeners are also treated to tracks like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to get us,” where Stevens offers a heartfelt cry to his Lord: “Lamb of God we sound the horn. Hallelujah! To us Your Ghost is Born! Hallelu…” In tracks like “Casimir Pulaski Day,” we are presented with honest frustration (“Tuesday night at the Bible Study we lift our hands and pray over your body but nothing happens…”) revealing an undisguised view of Sufjan’s heart.
Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album is, to me, beyond being described in a “short” review of words. Without becoming too cliché, it is an album that will take you on a journey of musical rediscovery. Each listen will open a new door and a new experience. Sufjan’s faith, honesty and creativity all collide in a masterpiece (yup, I said it) of sound. I can barely wait until Sufjan gets to writing about my home state, North Carolina!