Sufjan Stevens


(Asthmatic Kitty; 2005)

By Dom Sinacola | 5 July 2005

Here is a map of Illinois. Relatively detailed. Did you know that 63% of Illinois’s land use is in crop farming? Here, we aim to please all of your variegated senses.

Then, this is from a poem, “Skyscrapers,” from Chicago Poems, from Carl Sandburg, from Galesburg, Illinois, a town imbued, no doubt, with the poet’s name:

On the office doors from tier to tier—hundreds of names and each name standing for a face written across with a dead child, a passionate lover, a driving ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster’s ease of life.

And the following is the result of an explanation from my roommate, Boom, who said,

“I know that everyone who comes back says that. On planes, ya know. The best part about Chicago is the skyline. Jeff said that when he came back from New York.”

“Jeff who?”
“Jeff [last name].”


“New York doesn’t have it. Ours bounces up and down. It bops. New York doesn’t have Kankakee either. They don’t have July infestations of mayflies.”

“Maybe they do.

Kankakee was given two gazebos by David Letterman after it was voted the worst city in America in some sort of poll. Mostly, the town’s a reminder of just how condescending Letterman is.

Sights, sounds, colors, soul, and mostly-truths! Here at Cokemachineglow we offer relevance and interactivity, so not only will you receive an opinion about Sufjan Steven’s new LP, but you will also have fun doing so. Maybe learn something, too. All here!

So, why the competitive push?

In “Chicago,” Sufjan mentions two road trips, one to Chicago, one to New York, spaced by dueling percussion and a sheet of violins. The Illinoisemakers come in together to sing of the cities as two great saviors, swallowing a carload of budding twenty-somethings. The whomping gods of progress taught Sufjan and his friends about growing up, maybe about change, giving them a place in history and a cheery Craig Montoro horn solo: “We had our minds set / All things know, all things know / You had to find it / All things go, all things go.” Some Chicagoans are bugged by this. Irked by even bringing up New York, like one could be flat out better than the other; or, well, like New York could possibly be better than Chicago, our City of the Big Shoulders.

The song itself, though, as rudimentarily structured a pop song as you’re bound to find here, differs from tracks like “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” or “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” where lists of historical pieces end up catharsis for any —- and all (Sufjan’s scope is ambitious at the least) —- historical pain. “Chicago” is deeply personal and characteristically tinged with religious portent. “Casimir Pulaski Day,” despite being named after the holiday celebrating the Polish-American hero, works slowly through the last months in Sufjan’s friend’s life. Maybe he was in love with her; he doubts God and his faith, and then she dies on the March holiday. “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” is about how Sufjan sings in a tempered southern lick, “Our stepmom we did everything to hate her / She took us down to the edge of Decatur,” and realizes his stepmom is one fantastic lady up against the Grand Old backdrop of central Illinois. He creates a life, maybe true or maybe just made up, that, rooted to the state, attempts to claim a place of its own.

And that’s just fine. It’s gorgeous music, really, and that’s none too hard to believe coming from Sufjan, coming off of Michigan’s pretty frenzy or Seven Swan’s long, solemn buzz. In fact, some could find fault in the distance between Michigan and Illinois. This is a massive project, something along the lines of creating a contemporary musical identity for America while maintaining a “rich” history. Because Illinois shares the same suite structure, the same flexing of 23 muscles, the same Danielson background and banjos and folk humility and brass glee as Michigan, does it mean the wind’s already run out? Could be. We can wait for the Vermont EP to find out.

I’ve come to expect a lot out of Sufjan Stevens. Seems a bunch of people have. Here, there’s just one of many glowing accounts detailing the blissful journey through Illinois. The similarities to Michigan aren’t hard to conclude something about, and now we have an album that, while patient and winking, isn’t hard to adore. Here, there’s just one of many high ratings, one of many mentions that say something like “Sufjan’s name means ‘with his sword,’” or “The man plays 23 instruments!” (exclamation mark my own). Or then, has this artist grown?

It’s all true. Everything that made Michigan great is here, but the layout of Illinois is more focused. It begins with the watery piano and whispering flute of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL,” infusing a 2000 sighting of a triangular craft in the sky over Highland and Lebanon with the unmistakable grandeur of a Messiah’s slow Second Coming, and continuing from the state’s violent inception to a present ideal where Sufjan begins to shake off the Sandburg-affirmed “dirt” that clings to the soles of every Chicagoan.

His lyrics are honed, clearer, more epic, punchier, and, especially in the case of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” downright haunting. The Parts of his movements are sharper, not only in the titles of the songs themselves, but in the grace with which the Illinoisemakers shift to a “Part II,” confident the listener won’t bat an eye. When “The World’s Columbian Exposition” splits off from chunky horns into a gutted piano line and calmer strings; when a blubbery electric guitar solo dims to bring back in the horn’s previously huge melody, now a specter, all before the man sings, “I cried myself to sleep last night,” and Carl Sandburg’s ghost visits to tell him about the terrible “regret of a thousand centuries of death,” the progression is so sensual and smooth that the song’s length hides behind a mask of obligatory pop wanking.

Take “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhhh!” The souls of the dead become a flesh-eating quandary for the living. Right off, Sufjan churns out a deceptively funky bassline, then shadows it with terrorizing violins. The Illinoisemaker’s staccato chant, “I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S,” plugs a third rhythm into the mix. By the last third of the song, when the chanting is buffered by Sufjan’s always moving falsetto, when the rest of the rhythms take a break, the conglomeration is staggering.

Or, shit, take “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” What is initially a summery folk song with an arpeggiated guitar line toots and hollers into an epiphany of innocent love, complete with nubile vibes and a church’s worth of voices. The man’s grown, I’d say. He’s whittled and regurgitated his pop/folk bombast into something that sounds grander and more eloquent than anything he’s done before, and I’ll inject a hearty “woo-hoo” for that.

But, even with all the hullabaloo already surrounding this album, it becomes difficult to divorce myself from the two titular states that brought Sufjan to where he is today. I grew up in a fat circle around Detroit, and I found myself bound to the bipolar anathema and glee in Michigan. Now that I’ve been in Chicago for four years, have become an Illinois resident, have confessed love for neighborhoods and seedy dirges, I’m once again bound to Sufjan Stevens’ work. Does this make me the most competent person at CMG to write this review? Or am I just buoyed into showering praise over music that may or may not deserve it simply because my personal life finds friendship in Sufjan’s lyrics and emotional heft?

It’s like comparing New York and Chicago. Not really worth the trouble, because the differences come down to one person, like that guy who stands on the same corner every day, not asking for money, staring ahead, sweating under three winter layers in 90 degree heat. Chicago may be shouldering hundreds of years of depravity and destruction and rebirth, but maybe it’s just me doing that. And my neighbor. My cat, even. Sufjan, too. He’s followed by ghosts, identifies with human beasts, and approaches the World’s Fair-the grandeur of the White City coupled with the horror of the Devil-as if he is the one to purge that time of its aberrations. The intent is noble, but it’s also a bit superfluous. What makes the album so gigantic is how intensely unique the state’s identity becomes filtered through one man.

Because what I have to offer here is one in six million, and I still fucking act like Chicago is the only place worth being in this cornered blood stain of a state, this Prairie State of 12 and a half million. I can barely keep milk in the refrigerator. I can tell you that Illinois is my favorite album of the year, will still be in five months, but I’m not sure that will exorcise any of the demons Sufjan carries or wash away the bent face of a “dead child” scoured along our skyscrapers. And for each state, we’ll still be here, duking out the symbolism all the way down. Cripes.