Essential: Sufjan Stevens – Illinois review

by Jo Higgs

In a time that’s seen us so restricted as to where we can go, many of us have come to realise how expansive and universe-like just one place can be. Claustrophobia and restlessness inadvertently birthed a fight: us versus the space we are trapped within. Ultimately, the greatest way to combat this strife is to engage with the enemy. We find ourselves paying more and more attention to the wild intricacies – the deep unknown crevices of what we previously took only at surface level. In our deeper observance, we found more. Several small rooms and the dusty street leading to the local shop transformed into a geographical summary of our existence. 

Tenuous as it possibly is, in a sense, Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album, Illinois, takes a comparatively small area and builds it into a whole universe. Through historical delving and personal yarning, Stevens conjures a big album musically, and an enormous album conceptually, and by extension, spatially. 

It’s easy to understand why Illinois is so well-loved among ‘indie’ music fans and beyond: endearingly bouncy piano riffs, heart-wringing singalongs and a whispering voice that can lull you into a deep sleep or entrance you into its world. Paired with this endless demonstration of creative musicality, the detailed poetry of Illinois engulfs you in its setting. One can shut their eyes and be flown off to Illinois without the struggle of airport security, subpar plane snacks and a tedious few hours of being kicked in the back through a chair by a frustrated child. Whether it’s crying in a van with your friends on your way to Chicago, or standing in front of a vast plain observing a possible future for America and the state of Illinois in The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders, there is an unmistakable power sucking you into the situations and locations of Stevens’ songs. Each couplet or verse is gifted with a strong vividity, and thus, you are in the midwest state. 

Perhaps the greatest feat of assisting escapism on Illinois is not a physical transportation to Seer’s Tower or to the edge of Decatur (where we caught a wild alligator), but the metaphysical transplanting of your mind into that of notorious Illinois born-and-bred serial killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr. Though largely sung in an observational third person, John Wayne Gacy Jr., in its descriptions of personality and experienced trauma, seeps with emotion – a set of emotions that finds any reader so readily empathising with this otherwise gruesome character that for the less than four-minute duration, we feel we are this damaged human. There is such a sense of begrudging relation to the character throughout the track. At least, until Stevens explicitly intones the delicately crushing outro of ‘and on my best behaviour I am really just like him / look beneath the floorboards for all the secrets I have hid.’ It’s a devastating admittance of human flaw. Perhaps we are not the killer poeticised by Stevens, but we all do bad things. The hours one might spend deliberating on this song and its universalising sinful implications is a philosophic escapism, an exercise in humanity, in some ways not too dissimilar to the disturbing humanisation found in Nabokov’s Lolita

Holidays are out of bounds, and rightly so, but that pushes us to find other ways to escape the mundanity of life and more specifically the few painfully familiar rooms we’ve been cooped up in. With the imminence of Stevens’ next record, The Ascension, and the 15th anniversary of this one being just a few weeks gone, there is no better time to familiarise or re-familiarise yourself with such a gorgeous album. Lose yourself in the lore of Illinois and learn to breathe the air of a fresh space, get trapped in the wandering mind of Stevens and the maps he details, or get arrested by questions of morality. 

You still owe us 48 states, Sufjan. We haven’t forgotten.

To find out more about the record, we recommend this video essay – it’s an interesting dive into the record; we hope you enjoy:

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