Photo by Denny RenshawStumbling upon Sufjan Stevens’ song “For the Widows in Paradise” on a friend’s
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, they’re memorable. Anyone who’s listened closely to “Romulus” on
2003’s Michigan can’t 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 didn’t seem to care/She smoked in her room and colored her
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 Porter’s heart sing.
It’s an eclectic sound that manifests America’s 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 there’s 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-hen’s 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. There’s no element of revenge in the character of God, but there’s definitely an aggressive joy. He’s not chasing you like a stalker, he’s chasing you like a lover chases you. There’s 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.

LA Weekly