The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
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Sufjan Stevens embarks on a daunting musical task

“Come on feel the Illinoise,” the latest release by Sufjan Stevens, is the second component in one of the most ambitious projects in the history of rock music.

The concept is simple: Stevens plans to record an album based upon each state in the United States. At his current rate of producing one of these albums every two years, the completion of this project seems impossible. Faced with the daunting task at hand, however, Stevens claims he’s a man of his word.

While his first album of this kind was based upon his home state of Michigan, “Illinoise” required a little more work. To become acquainted with the state, Stevens opened the history books, delving into the poems of Carl Sandburg and the biographies of Abraham Lincoln for his inspiration. The result is an album that lives up to its grand pretensions both lyrically and musically.

The album opens with beautiful piano chords and background flute to set the mood, followed with touching harmonizing vocals.

The first two tracks act as almost a prologue to the story of Illinois that is to follow, slowly building up to the jazzier title track “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” The first part of the track exhibits the Chicago World Fair of 1893 in all its innovation and glory, while in second part Carl Sandburg visits the narrator in his dream and asks, “Are you writing from the heart?”

The question seems posed directly to Stevens, who does his best to answer throughout the rest of the album that he is indeed writing from the heart. The album goes from here to the sweet melancholy of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a song about the serial killer of the same name. The folksy “Jacksonville” changes pace while addressing race relations.

The album continues, never letting up and hooking the listener through either the music or the lyrics and oftentimes both.

“Chicago” is another standout track with a catchy beat and an even better chorus. After the lively “Chicago,” the sounds dip back into the folksy “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and the lyrics immediately become more personal. The instrumentation is simple but brilliant, and the backing vocals contribute to the intrinsic worth of the track.

The album succeeds in the end as well with a few instrumental tracks. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” is a great song about Superman with some excellent percussion near the end. On each of the last few songs Stevens develops his style even further, adding electronic noises and chimes, interesting vocal evocations or more beautiful piano.

Throughout the 22 songs clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, Stevens does a great job exploring Illinois through his sophisticated use of song-craft to tell a story. One could literally go line by line through the lyrics uncovering the meaning and also learning a few things about Illinois along the way. Because the songs on the album in some ways flow together, “Illinoise” is a great album to listen to while reading, doing homework or even showering.

The variety of styles employed does much to subvert the standards of pop, though not just for enjoyment’s sake. Stevens truly wants to raise the musical standard all across the board. Popularity, at least in the musical sense, is not his goal, although he has certainly attained his fair share of praise from the critics and the casual listener as well. Whether or not in fact Stevens will be able to complete his “States” project is yet to be seen, but so far it’s a worthwhile ride.

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