Friday, December 4, 2009

Hearing the Illinoise

Even knowing that fifty million Frenchman and roughly as many music critics can indeed be wrong, it would require no small perversity to eschew a recording that has won almost universal acclaim among critics and listeners. Such was my thinking when, upon seeing Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise at or near the top of every best-albums-of-the-decade list (e.g., this one, this one, and this one), I gave in and picked up a copy. Wikipedia gives a sense of the album's critical reception:

Despite the odd decision to spell the title as Illinois rather than Illinoise -- I am looking right at the cover art, and he spelled it Illinoise -- metacritic scores it at 90, confirming its positive reception among critics. A dubious but good enough sense of its appeal to listeners shows in its 4-1/2 rating on Amazon dot com.

What can I say? I find it strange and wonderful. A look at the song titles tells this is a concept album, but I could not say what the concept is -- a musical evocation of the state of Illinois, I gather, but there's more here -- and I question whether I want to know in any detail. There's something delicious about leaving a few Rosebuds unexplained, or finding one's own interpretations for the emotional, musical, and lyrical puzzles an album as abundantly suggestive as this one throws forth.

This bit from Paste sounds right to me:
His music pushed boundaries between pop and classical, and the emotional weight of his lyrics grounded his feather-light voice. There was a distinct peculiarity about Illinois and Stevens himself, who gave his songs titles like “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament.”
Here is the first song on the album, "Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois":


larryniven said...

You just now picked this up? Yikes.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about this guy. Talent-wise, yeah - he's quite good, and lots of fun to listen to. Good live, too, not that it matters anymore. But if you go listen to his prior album, the one about Michigan, it's hard not to notice a lot of similarities - but maybe that's just how musicians work, developing on themes. The same goes for his "Avalanche" album, which is b-sides for Illinois(e).

After that album took off, though, he made all kinds of comments about how maybe he was getting too popular and not pushing the envelope enough - so then he basically quit making music like this. His last new work was a 30-minute symphony about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which was I think years ago at this point. I mean, how can you be your own extremist indie fanbase? That's so bizarre to me. And of course he's very Christian, which always bugs me in smart people. So as a personality he's sort of hit-and-miss for me, but when I put that out of my head I really like most of his music.

Dale said...

Yep, just got around to this one. It would be a mistake to underestimate my ability to miss out on Big Trendy Things.

Definitely he's Christian. That's bearable so long as he doesn't take it too far.

Weird, though. It sounds like we have a Very Delicate Artist Who is Not Quite Content with Success on our hands. I really thought Curt Cobain worked that one out.

larryniven said...

Well, judge for yourself:

"...I think there is something very "easy listening" about my music. My colleague at Asthmatic Kitty, Michael Kaufman, comes from a noise/improv scene, and he's always making fun of me for being so accessible. He's been challenging me to sort of undermine that, how to responsibly sabotage the listenability of my music in order to challenge it. And I think right now, creatively, I need to go somewhere where I'm taking greater risks. [With] The Avalanche, I think the songs are interesting, I think they're successful, and I think there's a lot to learn from them. But I also think it's a bit too much of the same stuff over and over again."

For my part, I don't think accessibility in music is all that bad. But then again, I'm not a musician, so...