Returning to Illinois

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Can I interest you in a skull balloon, little boy?

“What’s the hell is this Charlie Brown shit?”, one of my friends asked while I was playing this CD in the car. Hard to think of a better description than that. I remember feeling a little embarrassed for liking this album, as it sometimes came off like a homework assignment (both in that it’s a history lesson and that it’s very long), and it had this mix of cuteness and fragility that sounded like it would be more at home in a Hyundai ad. Sufjan himself was like Zach Braff’s Garden State character come to life as a folk musician, a man flailing to set himself apart despite having a very natural talent. It seemed like he was trying to straddle that line between ironic distance and bare-hearted sincerity but it didn’t really work because nothing about the album was really all that funny. It was lavishly orchestrated and the band wore strange stage costumes and it all felt kinda like a put on. But none of that really mattered because the album was so good, in a way that was pretty obvious right from the start. You knew this thing was gonna wind up on everyone’s list for album of the year, if they were willing to look vulnerable for a second.  Yeah man, this is some Charlie Brown shit.  But I was really into it.

Plus, I thought the idea of using various cities and state landmarks as touchpoints for the songwriting was pretty clever. If nothing else you know the idea of the “50 States Project” (which obviously was never gonna happen) made John Linnell proud. More than that I loved the grandiosity of the thing, especially as a dude getting heavy into prog at the time. Not only could Sufjan play about two dozen instruments but he also had access to a choir and a small orchestra. Sure they sounded a bit like a high school band but that’s not exactly a bad thing – Sufjan’s got “band kid” written all over him so why try to hide it. Certainly he knew a thing or two about how to arrange a tune.

For me this was basically the defining album of my freshman year – I was getting into a ton of stuff all at once but this one was actually new and had some amount of hype behind it. I generally tend to punt on a lot of new critically acclaimed stuff but this one caught my attention. Like most people I gravitated to “Chicago” – I can still see the campus and the winding walking paths, through which I’d deliberately take the long way just because there were a few songs I wanted to get in before I got to the class. This was my first year away from home and “Chicago” was an anthem of hope and new beginnings. And I happened to have fond memories of Chicago itself, those fun weekend trips crashing on some old friend’s couch, walking around downtown and seeing more people than I’d ever seen in my life. Maybe space was tight and everything was expensive but Chicago had it all – there were tons of shows and giant malls and big outdoor attractions, all the things you’ve heard about but never gotten to really experience for yourself. For a teenager who’d rarely ventured outside of Manitowoc this was like stepping into a different world.  The song captured that feeling.

But there are two songs on here that pack a particular emotional punch and I’m guessing you know what they are already. Despite its ridiculous premise I still get choked up at the Gacy song, something about the apparent indifference in his voice just gets to me. I still wish he hadn’t included that final line but an album as ambitious as this can be allowed a few missteps. Much better is “Casimir Pulaski Day”, not only a harrowing tale of loss but also a poignant reflection on the nature of faith. It’s just one sucker punch after another, though the music itself is not particularly sad, as if to say that’s just how life is. It is one of those rare songs that I straight up cannot listen to some days. Even revisiting this album now I had to brace myself to hear this one again.

When I first got into this it was all about the color, the real maximalist stuff that sounded like lavish Christmas music – “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”, “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders”, and “Chicago” of course (“Jacksonville” too, though that one’s a bit more restrained).  These songs were in my head all the time, making me wonder if I was secretly a musical guy all along (like, in the Guys & Dolls sense of the word). Of course there were plenty of other great tunes that have probably held up better (the “Predatory Wasps” one comes to mind) but those five were the ones I was constantly looping on the iPod. But despite the 70-minute run time I never thought the album really needed to be cut down – yes it’s got some dull moments (“The Seer’s Tower”), and I wish the album had more punch to it (particularly in the drums) but in general it’s remarkably consistent. Maybe the sort of album you want to listen to in two sittings though, which is what’s cool about the LP version, (plus the LP has an extra song, “The Avalanche”). As it turns out I actually own it – I bought this in Chicago in 2009 or so (how could I not?) despite the fact that it wasn’t really an album I was listening to anymore. And this is where I found it a decade later, still shrink-wrapped, with that balloon sticker still sitting over the unauthorized image of Superman.

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Unwrapping and revisiting the album was a bit surreal…I overplayed this so much in ’05 and ’06 that I never really felt the urge to listen to it again. Hearing it now is like coming back to your old home town, seeing the landmarks and remembering the things that used to be important to you, charmed with the naïveté of what life used to be like but not exactly wanting to go back. Maybe you imagined the future being different than this. Maybe you thought the people you were close to were going to stay in your life forever. Maybe you’re still waiting for those other 48 state-themed Sufjan Stevens albums. Obviously his career did not go the way most people were expecting it to go but at the end of the day that’s true for most people and we can probably be thankful for that. As great as this album is it was a stylistic dead end. It took Sufjan the rest of the decade to figure out how to handle it.

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It’s not just the music that’s got the “high school art project” vibe to it.

I have no doubt future generations will discover this album and fall for it in their own way – “Chicago” is now the opening theme for the Netfix series The Politician, which judging by YouTube comments has brought in a whole new crowd of listeners who perhaps were too young to be aware of this in 2005. But I can’t really be objective about it today. Much like the album itself deals with stories from Sufjan’s past I can’t hear it now without thinking of particular people or places. This was my freshman year.

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