Thursday, July 10, 2008

Illinois


Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Illinois
Best song: "Casimir Pulaski Day" or "Chicago.
Worst song: "The Seer's Tower" is just OK.

"Eeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyy."
- Arthur Fonzarelli


The nature of modern "cool" is such that not caring is as important as anything. Within alternative music, this movement gained traction sometime in the 1980s, when punk rock stopped being important and "indie" rock became the norm. Gone were the days of political rantings from the Minutemen. Replacing them was Stephen Malkmus and his band of merry ne'er-do-wells known as Pavement. Sincerity was lost, in many ways.

"Cool," though, eventually turned into "quirk." The late-1990s saw what was once a mocking tone turn into a reverant one. The 1980s were no longer a decade to be mocked, but to be revered with an odd sincerity long-held for the 1960s and 1970s. Disco became OK with straight people.

Irony, twee and quirk became -- and remain -- the norm. Wes Anderson, a brilliant filmmaker (though some would suggest he's only brilliant in his own mind), celebrates quirk to a remarkable degree. It became cool to enjoy childlike things -- Belle and Sebastian's music comes to mind. It became cool to find the little things in life. "Cool" is meaningless, but a pockmarked, nerdy sincerity became cool again.

One could argue that Weezer created this. One could argue the proliferation of popular culture created this. I'd argue that the personal computer and rise of the Internet created this.

For one, the long tail of Internet commerce and information makes it so that everyone can be quirky. We've all become our own Wes Andersons, our own Napoleon Dynamites. If I like to wear pageboy hats and pocket watches, I can find them online and recreate my own version of 1930s newspaper boy style. Maybe I collect porcelain figures. Whatever my quirk is, I can find and feed it.

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"There’s a fine line between stupid and clever"
- David St. Hubbins


Sufjan Stevens' popularity fits into this concept snugly. A reli-, er, sprirtual songwriter from Holland, Michigan, Stevens is a Midwestern Beck by way of more intelligent singer/songwriters. Stevens' normally whisper-soft voice is gorgeous and his grasp of tons of instruments belies his indie heritage. While the old model of singer/songwriter was one based around a guitar and mic, Stevens' has harmonies, glockenspiels and horns.

His so-called "50 State Project" hasn't really materialized, but the fruits so far of that labor are brilliant. "Michigan" is the more personal album and has some of the prettier, more low-key songs ("Holland" and "Romulus") Stevens has written. Still, "Illinois" is a more robust record, with more dynamics and more room for Stevens to show his skills.

It does stand to reason the "Michigan" is more personal and somber as an album, being the Stevens is from Michigan and that Michigan's recent decline is, well, depressing. Illinois, as a state, has a more robust and interesting history (I say that partially because I grew up in Illinois) and Stevens' evolution as a songwriter reflects that.

The album begins in a similar, but markedly different way than "Michigan" does. "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" has Stevens accompanied by a simple piano (and some other vocalists), but he's upbeat and sweet, whereas "Flint" is somber and sad. The album takes off from the opening track, falling into a long-titled instrumental ("The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are off Our Lands!'"). Indeed, long titles for instrumental tracks are Stevens' way of highlighting historical events that he, apparently, wasn't able to write a song about.

One of the album's largely-arranged opuses (opi?), "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" is over six and a half minutes of organ, horns and choirs. Dropping references like a crazy person, the song eventually had Stevens describing a nighttime visit from Illinois' second-greatest writer:

I cried myself to sleep last night
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window
I was hypnotized, I was asked
To improvise
On the attitude, the regret
Of a thousand centuries of death


A group of singers serenades Stevens as he augments the lyric (And I cried myself to sleep last night/For the Earth, and materials, they may sound just right to me") and the song eventually fades out.

The album's other opus, "Chicago" reflects the town -- and America's -- love affair with transit, highways and movement. Stevens' need to move is almost teenage in its hyperbole, but gorgeous in its execution ("If I was crying/ In the van with my friend/ It was for freedom/ From myself and from the land,") until he turns it on himself, repeating "I've made a lot of mistakes." It's a wonderful piece of Stevens' emotion; softly ironic and winknigly full of cheese, yet tender and self-effacing.

Stevens doesn't just do bombast well, though. "John Wayne Gacy" is the only song I tend to skip on the disc, largely because it's so unsettling. The song's sweetness belies Gacy's life, though Stevens comes around to the forgiveness angle of his own religiosity.

The highlight of Stevens' softness is the wonderful "Casimir Pulaski Day." Armed with James 5:14, the best holiday ever and a sweet storyline about a new neighbor, Stevens crafts his best acoustic song this side of "Romulus."

He can operate on an upbeat, low-key scale, as well. "Decatur," while not somber, is a fantastic melody and has Stevens rhyming the town name with emancipator and alligator. "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!" is sweet-sounding, despite its reference to the Trail of Tears. "Jacksonsville" is cool and chocked full of nearly as many references as "Decatur."

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But, of course, this is all played against the backdrop of Stevens' winks and nods. Are the scores of hipsters, critics and fans ("Illinois" was the best-reviewed album of 2005) really into all the bells and organs? Or are they fans of his irony? Or are they some combination of both?

Is the only way to reach this generation -- or at least the people worth reaching within this generation -- through irony, twee and quirk? Do you have to detach oneself by wearing fairy wings or dressing up like a cheerleader (both things Stevens has done in concert) in order to connect with people like me?

And, of course, at what point is it stupid? What point is it clever? Does it really matter?

I don't know, but I think maybe it does.

1 comment:

Tyler E. said...

I think once you're wearing wings on stage you've passed far away from clever and well into stupid territory.