French Version: http://humeursurmusiquemoderne.blogspot.com/2011/05/sufjan-stevens-come-on-feel-illinoise.html
In our actual world, the rushed and assisted men whom brain is as fast as a jellyfish are surrounding us and it’s hard to escape. The Empire’s multi-nationals have for only goal to depreciate and enslave us by soften our brain with lukewarm and tasteless soups… Actually, I’m a bit harsh because, to be honest, they hide the piss aftertaste of their crap with less and less care. You just have to look at today’s menu to understand they definitely take us for dumbass with an atrophied pallet: veal à la Gaga or Britney’s steak, so no need to tell you that, according to me, junk food doesn’t just applied to physical food.
Today, I have chosen to talk about one of the finest intellectual and musical food of the decade. I had already mentioned Sufjan Stevens a couple of times in my ravings and it was time for me to take it seriously. To do so, I have no other choice than going against the current of our actual high speed culture and take my time as it has been done to conceive such a masterpiece. Indeed, that’s what this Come on Feel The Illinoise is. The first thing you need to know is that record is a concept album since all the songs are about the same theme. With the title, it’s easy to understand that we are going to talk about the state of Illinois, through songs talking about its cities, people or stories taking place in the northern America.
The second thing you need to know here is that Stevens locked himself in his apartment for long months and polished his work almost exclusively alone. He plays almost all the instruments and he’s the producer of the entire record. Finally, you must know that what we are ready to listen has nothing in common with all the known music and that we have here someone who understood that, even at our time, to make a step forward, you must take your time…
A piano, far away, sounds and starts the record. Weird flutes gather it, then the song begins and Stevens’ voice is harmonized by a choir giving the tune some extent. The theme is well led, soft and steady with magnificent sounds reminding me of some movie theme. The following track is surprising and tells us more about the epic we just started. With its choir and weird winds, The Black Hawk War, Or How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself is as unusual as its title. We have once again the feeling of being told a story and that it is more than just a simple theme. The snares slap together with the drums, trumpets resonate and we are thrown in the middle of an epic and conqueror theme altogether deeply critic and ironic. It’s fresh, colorful, surprising and yet familiar and we will find these impressions all along the record.
The title track of the album starts with a syncopated bass line made by the piano. Then again, the brass and drums get in together and mix oddly but efficiently. The song starts once the brass’ tumult calmed down and the song is launched. Here again, that’s an amazing tale that is told to us, a journey through Chicago, Illinois and its cities. We will this way go through the whole state in this bright album. The arrangements of this track are endlessly deep and the melodic wealth is limitless too. We have the feeling to hurtle down a road full speed and see the landscapes scroll, smell the freshly fallen rain and never stop. The frenetic rhythm and the concatenation of the bridges are as many different landscapes scrolling in front of us. The track quiets down slowly then to end up in a magnificent and warm strings arrangement. After a long journey, we get back home. Some guitar arpeggios keep a warmth quickly hinted by the cold and far piano introducing this John Wayne Gracy Jr. We are being told the sad story of a man apparently normal and nice who ended serial killer. This story is even sadder when you know it’s a true story. Indeed, the album is some kind of tribute to the Illinois state as we’ve told it before. This tribute is paid through historical tale as well as some dull and yet true stories like that, with a surprising look over the situation since we would almost pity this John Wayne serial killer (not the fat alcoholic cowboy). The sad and beautiful music increases this impression together with Steven’s conclusion explaining, in the end, him and us aren’t very different from this John Wayne Gracy Jr.
The violins of Jacksonville come to add a bit of joy and bring back the cities of yesterday’s the bright light on the dusky truth of the previous song. The strings hold a note suspending before they start a descending theme and are relayed by the piano taking care of the bass line, then the drums and the others instruments mixing to the whole. The song is launched, once again on the weirdest syncopated rhythm and yet it’s very efficient. The number of instruments and voices each following a different melodic line is unbelievable. However, the whole is well ventilated and very agreeable. We are carried by this unusual rhythm, these various breaks and this melodic wealth and endless arrangements again. The track calms down but doesn’t really end and we get directly on the next musical interlude. The violins of A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons vibrate and remain on the same tensed chord, building some kind of outro to the previous Jacksonville, like one last look over the city we just left and on the ending act.
The countdown made by Stevens starts the next part of this Illinoise and Decatur, or Round Of Applause For Your Step Mother! We start on shifted rhythmic almost reggae held by a banjo and an accordion. The 2 voices start the song together and won’t leave each other. Some other voices will quietly join in before we get to the chorus. We still have this pretty weird background sound made by the accordion and the voices supported by the banjo. The track ends in an extended cheering on the next interlude (One Last Whoo-hoo! For The Pullman) before we hear the bells ring, cold and bright, introducing the most famous city of Illinois, the mythical Chicago. Then the violins introduce the drums along with the bass and guitars before everything calms down again, for we arrived in THE city. Stevens’ voice is supported by a simple Rhodes rhythmic. The violins appear quite often usually announcing the entering of a new instrument or the coming chorus, stimulating, a slap like a a dip in clear and fresh water. Here again, the arrangements are pretty complex and wonderfully orchestrated. We have a true energy coming out of it while having a nice and clear sound. We are immersed in the dementia of the big cities and in this tireless rhythm, grueling but that gives us in the end, the feeling of being truly alive… After a few notes made by the trumpets, we are once again out of the city and its dazzling lights. One last look back with the voices fading away little by little and we are already far from this magnificent yet terrible Chicago.
We get back to the quiet with “Casimir Pulaski Day”, a simple and beautiful ballad made with the guitar that allows us to breathe after the oppressive city. The voices are beautifully harmonized and it’s hard to remain unmoved by the voice of Stevens. This track is a true fresh air breath despite the words’ weight. The trumpet appears in the middle of the song as if to warn us about what we should expect at the end of the track. Even if we are on a quite simple ballad, Sufjan Stevens always like to spice things a bit, and slowly, the song gets more intense with the addition of new instruments little by little. Everything is wonderfully nuanced. A break is done by the voices then mixed to the trumpet and rhythmic. Little by little, voices and instruments are added for this calm riot which ends this magnificent ballad.
The piano comes back in along with guitars and different sorts of drums. The trumpets come and join them for the sad “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”, which is a new interlude here to better announce us “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Heart” which starts fast. We have a drum rhythmic that marks the tempo strengthened by the guitar that literally hammers it. Then the saturated guitars get in and bring something new compared to what we’ve had so far before everything calms down again with the acoustic guitar and the winds. The song starts on these quiet arrangements to which voices and brass come to blend in for the chorus. We are far from the agitation of the beginning. However, for the second chorus, the frenetic and saturated guitars come back to which are added some brilliant choirs for an invigorating mix that will then set place to the verse and the quieter arrangements again. This song is completely crazy and it is even more since it’s taken seriously. We have something big with this album. Sufjan Stevens shows he has nothing of a funny man and that he does pretty much whatever he likes with the rules and musical conventions. He mixes everything, shakes it well, adds a (huge) pinch of his madness and re-invents music under our eyes (or ears). This music is absolutely extraordinary and makes everything done before and that our generation can prevent from plagiarize, look old.
We remain in madness with the kitschy organ of “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” to which mix the bells we have already heard before. The interlude is once again very surprising, a mix of pretty much everything it’s possible and conceivable to hear. It is clear Stevens began this album slowly and has decided to give it some power a few tracks ago. We have something completely insane here and of a rare complexity while being utterly beautiful. What we have here is pure genius.
Then it looks like Sufjan Stevens is about to leave us some time to breathe and get our mind back with a new ballad of which he’s capable of. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” begins on a simple guitar-voice quickly joined by more voices but then, the madness comes back. Winds and brass mix in an unbelievable way for a bridge of an outstanding beauty announcing once more an astonishing finish but later on that… First we go back on a brilliant verse punctuated of new arrangements still as wonderful as before that introduce the chorus. Its structure is the same as the bridge’s one to which vocal arrangements are added before the trumpets come calm everything down for a while to then be joined by the voices and the orchestra. Stevens’ timbre is still there and admirably overflies the whole. It is just beautiful. The song ends on an unpleasant sound getting stronger up till the chord introducing the next song. Well my friends, if you believed we were about to stop here, it’s quite the contrary: we are far from it. Stevens blocked us in the corner and keeps attacking us, uppercut on uppercut, hook on hook. This “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” is just like its title : a new UFO in the starry sky of Illinois. First, the chords are done with the piano before a surprising and funky bass line comes in. It’s then gathered by the drums, then the violins and the voices for an outstanding mix once again. Everything calms down and set place to the lead voice. This track puts back the limits of what’s known. The rhythm, arrangements and structure are unbelievable.
The true breath is done here on a string quartet interlude, caught back by the cold bells of before leading us on another interlude. I must say after the euphoria and the complexity we’ve been through before, the decompression is necessary. “The Seer’s Tower” comes quiet things down a bit. Grim chords start the track before Stevens’ penetrating voice takes the lead. The rhythm is slow and for once, we only get one piano, an organ supporting it and some voices. We are in something far less crazy and sadder than the rest. The track fades away on voices getting further little by little. We could then expect the end of frenzy and the stream of life that have carried us away up till now. “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulder” comes like an avalanche. We can hear it tint far away before the piano comes quickly followed by winds, brass and drums. Here again, the rhythm is crazy, repetitive and harmonizes itself little by little before a surprising break. The wealth and abundance take place before letting Sufjan talk. The harmonic wealth is endless and the shades of remarkable precision. Once again, we can see the various landscapes narrating the story scroll which makes us realize how talented its writer is. The track evolves beautifully here; several unique moments yet connected to each other mix in a complex and remarkable piece.
Another interlude introduces the conclusion to this epic tour of Illinois. “Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run” starts on a single note on the piano repeated and then completed by all the instruments that have taken part to the song throughout the album. The rhythm is hammered and we are evolving into some kind of organized chaos, nuanced. This is the goodbye of all the instruments that have transported us in the various landscapes of this record. The music is almost organic here, beautiful but without any specific direction. However, it keeps growing without being oppressive or heavy. It will fade away progressively to end on a single note, alone, beautiful.
This means the end of a very personal journey. With this sonorities worthy of a high school marching band and its arrangements from outer space, Stevens shows us it is still possible to innovate in musical creation and that all hasn’t been done yet. He becomes a symbol of the opposite of the trends of our time: he is a sustainable artist, taking its time and constantly going ahead, making things in a precise purpose. The result: we are struck in the face by pure poetry and it is good.