Many artists have written concept albums about California, Texas, and New York over the years. But only one man has possessed the geographical fortitude to write an entire album about the great state of Illinois.
Welcome to Sufjan Stevens!
Stevens grew up in Michigan playing a variety of instruments — including the banjo, drums, piano, and oboe — but didn’t begin playing the guitar and writing songs until college. Even his earliest efforts gravitated towards thematically linked compositions as he wrote about the days of the week, the planets, and the Twelve Apostles. After forming a record label with his stepfather, Stevens went on to record a song cycle about the Chinese zodiac.
In 2003, Stevens released a concept album about his home state of Michigan, purportedly the first in a series known as “The 50 States Project.” He followed that up two years later with Illinois (aka Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise) after spending months reading the works of native authors and poets, researching historical documents, and soliciting anecdotes from friends. Eventually he recorded enough material for a double album but decided that would be a bit pretentious (which is somewhat ironic considering the second track is two minutes long yet sports the title, “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!'” — because that’s not pretentious at all.)
Upon its release in the summer of 2005, Illinois was greeted with near universal acclaim and topped several lists for Best Album of the year. [Stevens later stated that the idea of recording albums for all 50 states was more of a promotional gimmick, although he did toy with visiting Rhode Island next, and also wrote a few songs about New York and New Jersey.]
“Chicago” is probably the most well-known track on the album, but I’ve decided to present “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmom!” since it’s one of my favorite songs of the decade, a wonderful exercise in rhyme scheme — as Stevens described it — that blends the personal with the historical (for example, a flood actually did once cause a host of buried Civil War soldiers to rise from the dead).
So come up clapping, and feel the Illinoise … with Sufjan Stevens.