After rock and roll began a slow and painful death in the early 21st century on a commercial basis, other forms of music began to emerge to replace the old rock scene that had existed, in the mainstream’s eyes, for decades. This album, a concept album about the USA state of Illinois, was seen as a great example of critical success and built up a steady fan base for Sufjan Stevens in that respect.
Is it worth a listen? Let’s find out.
We kick off with Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois which begins with a melancholy piano piece that is highly original. The multitracked singing and flutes make this seem somewhat neo-hippy like, but it is a good and soothing listen. It’s a good way to kick off this concept album.
Next is the absurdly extremely long titled The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilisation and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologise for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, “I have bought the big knives and will continue to fight…”. Yes, that is the title. It begins with some strange combinations of harmonies and fluttering electronic sounds. It is a short and sweet piece which does sound quite nice here. Some awesome trumpets and marching drum sounds join the piece and it sounds glorious. Not bad for a two-minute song.
Come On! Feel The Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream) has a catchy piano to begin with and a great melodic sensibility. It seems rather old fashioned in sound and approach, but sounds fresh and inspired. It’s not unlike The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in some respects musically. An entertaining and different (in a good way) listen. There are some brilliant melodies and unusual sounds throughout. The two sections join together effortlessly, much to our delight. It is very gentle music, the strings at the end are lovely.
John Wayne Gacy, Jr. begins with subtle piano and excellent fingerpicked guitar. The calm singing and approach is interesting, and the random lyrics are likely drug-inspired. It builds up with a great melodic sensibility and suspense that is rarely matched with this unusual sort of music. It becomes dark and eerie at the end.
The next piece Jacksonville has some interesting instrumentation about it, and some unusual instrumentation with piano and banjo to boot. This is rather quirky music, but it is easy listening and reassuringly so. The trumpets kick in, along with more string sections and it is an upbeat listen. It’s very musically unusual, with no real repeated lyrics or phrases, just good music. It’s a multisectioned musical wonder.
Going straight into A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons which is a nice melancholy string section which sounds sad. It’s still consistent with the rest of the album, however.
Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause for Your Step-Mother! kicks off with accordion and banjo. It’s a psychedelic sort of piece lyrically, and musically too. There are many intricacies to this music. This part of the album is no exception. It’s a quirky number for sure.
One Last “Whoo-Hoo!” for the Pullman is six seconds long and has clapping and cheering. Need we say more?
Next is the six-minute piece Chicago. It’s a catchy piece, particularly with the vocal melody. It’s a moving and joyous melodic piece to listen to. There is a huge amount of carefully done work here in a musical sense. It’s a glorious musical journey of wonder. A great combination of melody and beauty. The main melody is used in a variety of ways, an excellent tune. It fades out with ghostly harmonies.
Following is Casimir Pulaski Day which starts with strummed acoustic guitar and a sad story lyrically. This is extremely moving and decent music to hear. It is rather depressing and uplifting simultaneously, depending on how you interpret the song. A sort of strange folk story, it has biblical Christian references in it. The harmonies and trumpets are very good here.
To The Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament is a short combination of piano and electronic sounds, amongst other semi-psychedelic melodies. There are pummelling drum sounds as well in the background, making it an interesting listen. Even for a short instrumental such as this, this album is a great listen.
The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts has a counted intro and loud, distorted electric guitars with pounding drums before completely turning around and becoming something completely different, with more typical Sufjan Stevens instrumentation. It then goes back into the heavy rock sound, mixing the two sections together. Great stuff, well worth hearing. It references Joseph Stalin, a strange sort of thing to acknowledge. Nonetheless, a good effort. The outro is rather quirky, with more harmonies by a choir at the end.
Next is Prairie Fire That Wanders About which starts off with a cheesy organ sound, with various instrumentation added to it. It has some very impressionistic and artistic lyrics to go with it. Some chanting and marching like drums come along to surprise you. It ends after two minutes.
For 19 seconds we enter A Conjunction of Drones Simulating The Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze which is merely a build-up of instrumentation and melody leading into the next track.
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us! begins with flute and acoustic guitar, before launching into a strange dream-like song. It has a great combination of artistry and melody, with a pop sensibility. This is once again, consistently good listening. Worth your time. The midsections in particular are quite brilliant. It gets very loud towards the end.
They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbours!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhh! is next, and it kicks off with some melancholy melodies from different instruments. It has a great string section join the main part of the track, before chanting begins from the choir. Sufjan Stevens then sings a sad song about said topic. Strange, but still very listenable. Some precise drumming is here, which sounds good.
Next is Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out In Bushnell which is a 40-second string piece from the previous track. It’s good to hear, even after the previous track.
Following is another super short instrumental In This Temple as in the Hearts Of Man for Whom He Saved The Earth which is only 35 seconds long, and consists of harmonic chanting. Great stuff to hear regardless.
The Seer’s Tower begins with an extremely depressing melody and Sufjan Stevens sings quietly about catastrophic events. It’s an intensely depressing listen, so if this is not your thing, you may not wish to hear this one. Still, it is excellently done and a great listening experience regardless.
The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier – Part II: Come To Me Only with Playthings Now) begins with chimed percussion before going into a much more upbeat piece. It is great listening and a good change from the melancholy before it. Good to hear towards the end of the album. This is in a two-part medley and is excellent listening.
Next, we have Riffs And Variations On A Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King Of Swing, To Name A Few. It’s only 46 seconds and consists of trumpets and wind instrument sounds galore. A good thing to hear at this point in the album.
Lastly, we have Out Of Eygpt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, and I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals as I Run. It begins with chugging piano and a build-up of instrumentation to go along with this melody. It’s a good listening experience and flows nicely. It ends with a beautiful xylophone melody.
This is a very unusual sounding album that is worth hearing. The only thing really dragging it down is the mixed-up set of emotions in some of the songs here. Some songs seem utterly euphoric, others downright miserable. Wacky titles aside, this is a good album, yet falls a little short of being a great album.
Weird and wonderful.