Most people would be hard-pressed to come up with a one-sentence description of each of the 50 states. But songwriter Sufjan Stevens began a much more ambitious project in 2003: crafting an album about each state. He started with Michigan and continues this year with the second installment, "Illinois."
Stevens executes "Illinois" with the precision such a monumental project requires. He invokes famous Illinois residents from Abraham Lincoln to John Wayne Gacy, whose serial murders in the 1970s are described in intricate -- but thankfully not grotesque -- detail. He even references Superman's home town of Metropolis, and the first version of the album's cover depicts the Man of Steel flying over the skyline toward Al Capone. (Due to legal issues with the artwork, Stevens's label, Asthmatic Kitty, will reissue the album without Superman's image, although the original version can still be found in stores.)
But the strength of "Illinois" rests more on Stevens's narrative lyrics and elaborate arrangements than on his thorough research of state history. He drops Stephin Merritt-esque rhymes in "Decatur" ("Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her / She took us down to the edge of Decatur") and leads a backing choir through a percussive spell-along on "They Are Night Zombies!" But while such rowdy ensemble numbers as the jubilant "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" are the album's most instantly conspicuous pieces, Stevens's mellower folk songs (notably, the guitar-driven "Casimir Pulaski Day" with its lush Simon and Garfunkel-style harmonies) are its most memorable.
With such intelligent, elaborate songwriting, it's difficult to imagine Stevens's states series ever growing tedious, even if he makes it to album 50.
-Catherine P. Lewis