There’s a fine line between “concept” and “gimmick,” and Sufjan Stevens straddles it admirably on Illinois, his fifth album and the second installment of his Fifty States project. Invoking Carl Sandburg as his muse, Stevens commemorates the Prairie State and a motley assemblage of former residents, including Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, Superman, and Ronald Reagan. Whereas 2003’s Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State was steeped in memory (it’s Stevens’s home state, after all), Illinois is the product of research: Before writing the CD’s 22 songs, Stevens buried himself in books, reading everything from Saul Bellow novels to out-of-print regional histories.
On paper, the conceit might seem a little too precious, a little too Schoolhouse Rock; through speakers, it’s unexpectedly moving. Although Stevens’s anthems are big and declamatory, with all of Sandburg’s brawny extravagance and dogged populism, their real power derives from intimate particularities: During a day trip to Decatur, a kid quits hating his stepmother; on Casimir Pulaski Day, a Bible student questions his faith as his girlfriend dies of bone cancer. Instead of getting bogged down in abstractions, as so many concept albums do, or collapsing in self-satisfied snickers, as all novelty albums do, Illinois strikes the right balance between the stubborn facts of history and the irreducible truths of the imagination. In “Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream,” the stunning second movement of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise,” the poet’s ghost repeatedly asks, “Are you writing from the heart?”; this preoccupation informs even the most whimsical tracks on the album and transforms what might have been a sterile exercise — one part term paper, one part Broadway musical — into an emotionally authentic work of art.
That Stevens is a brilliant composer and arranger doesn’t hurt, of course. Alternating spare Appalachianisms with the symphonic sprawl of Van Dyke Parks, he plays upwards of 30 instruments on the CD and outsources the rest to guest musicians; it’s a testament to his production skills that all the glockenspiels, string quartets, organs, recorders, and woodwinds don’t obscure the delicate eloquence of his songs. Whether he’s whipping up teenage symphonies to God or murmuring over a solitary banjo, Stevens makes each track work both individually and in context, an achievement that’s all the more striking given the variety of sounds and styles. With its twittering recorders, Stevens’s tuneful quaver, and a few echoing piano chords, “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois” comes off like a lost collaboration between Philip Glass and the Flaming Lips. The first movement of “Come On Feel the Illinoise!” erupts in a burst of triumphant horns, martial drums, and a celestial female chorus before morphing into a bristly piano ditty in 5/4 time. The unnervingly sympathetic portrait of a serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” relies solely on acoustic guitar, piano, and Stevens’s tremulous tenor; “Casimir Pulaski Day,” as ruinously gorgeous as anything on Neil Young’s Harvest, gets by with an acoustic guitar, the barest trace of banjo, and a lone trumpet.
From the southern-boogie baroque of “Jacksonville” to the spiky Stax stylings of “They Are Night Zombies!!,” Illinois co-opts, corrupts, and converts virtually every American musical genre of the last 200 years. Even the short transitional instrumental pieces are more interesting and fully realized than most bands’ best songs. Thirty-year-old Stevens, who still has 48 states left to go, probably won’t complete his project — if he continues to crank out one every couple of years, he’ll be 126 by the time he’s done — but that’s OK. Illinois is more than a state; it’s an entire cosmology.