Photo by Denny RenshawStumbling upon Sufjan Stevens song For the Widows in Paradise on a friends mix CD was like finding a pure gold coin on a hot street in a crappy part of town. Unlike so many prominent new artists of the past few years, Stevens offers more complexity and richness the more you scratch the surface: His melodies are lovely and seductive, and gain momentum and magnitude over the course of each song. Their accompaniments piano, strings, horns or even a chorus of disparate voices feel surprising yet at home, entering with the kind of assured saunter typical of more seasoned producers like Jon Brion or Daniel Lanois. Stevens lyrics walk that graceful line between generously broad and heartbreakingly concrete, but most of all, theyre memorable. Anyone whos listened closely to Romulus on 2003s Michigan cant shake the image of a mom who abandoned her kids to be raised by their grandfather. When the grandfather dies, mom returns home in all her apathy: She didnt seem to care/She smoked in her room and colored her hair. Stevens latest offering, Illinois, is Part 2 in his plan to write an album for each of the 50 states. While that goal might sound a bit cute, Illinois is anything but glib or insincere. Spanning a broad range of subjects, from the Sears Tower to serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. to UFOs to Carl Sandburg, Stevens alternately hopeful and palpably sad montage captures the uneven texture of American life, where boosterism and the enforced cheer of pop culture mask the eerie pall of broken families, lurid crimes and existential angst. By biting off much, much more than he could possibly be expected to chew, Stevens lands in ambitious and ultimately inspired territory, mixing the gentle twang of folk music with uplifting, symphonic anthems that would make Cole Porters heart sing. Its an eclectic sound that manifests Americas rich history of optimism leavened by crushed dreams. Like Michigan, Stevens Illinois resembles a collage of sense-memories from childhood: wasps, navy yards, pictures of your mother, Cream of Wheat, Bible study. The chorus of the title track asks, repeatedly, Are you writing from the heart? At 30 years old, Stevens is not only writing from the heart he seems to be conjuring the souls of the dead, whose sorrows and vic-tories whisper through his wavering voice. And then theres God, a presence lurking in many of Stevens songs that would feel out of place in another landscape. But the divine is as at home here as in Leonard Co-hens work. Like Cohen, Stevens recognizes that the sacred melancholy of human experience is encapsulated in the little things: goldenrod and untied shoes and car trips to Decatur. When asked about the prevalence of a punishing God in his songs, Stevens told Uncut magazine, Oh no. Theres no element of revenge in the character of God, but theres definitely an aggressive joy. Hes not chasing you like a stalker, hes chasing you like a lover chases you. Theres a lot of aggression in that kind of romance. We pursue things out of reverence, out of our need to worship. Listening to these songs, I feel as if my need to worship has been asleep for decades. With his odd kaleidoscope of nostalgia, sweetness, manic joy and regret, Sufjan Stevens has shaken that need awake with his bare hands. SUFJAN STEVENS | Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty) Stevens plays the El Rey Theater on July 16.
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