Sufjan Stevens: “Chicago”
When Sufjan Stevens released his third album, Greetings from Michigan, in 2003, he declared his intention to release an album dedicated to each state of the U.S. Now, eight years on, and with last year’s release of The Age of Adz, I think it’s safe to say that he’s moved on from that idea, although I suspect it was just an attention-getter to begin with. Nevertheless, he did go on to release #2 out of 50 in 2005, the ambitious (Come on Feel the) Illinoise (if you don’t get the joke, look up Slade or Quiet Riot). And good thing he did, because it has a remarkable array of songs (22!) spread over its 70+ minutes.
Sufjan has shown a knack for incorporating a multitude of sounds into his music and making it sound right, but at the same time is just as likely to record a song with nothing more than his often delicate voice and an acoustic guitar. He’s equally comfortable in both settings. And on this song from Illinoise, simply* titled “Chicago,” he goes in both directions, creating a 6-minute masterpiece, equal parts quiet and majestic, personal and universal. Three or so albums later (depending on whether you include his outtakes album, Christmas album, and instrumental classical album), I still think of “Chicago” as Sufjan Stevens’ defining moment.
* I say “simply,” and am thankful for it, because Stevens is often inclined to give his songs titles of somewhat unwieldy (to put it mildly) length. Case in point, also from Illinoise: “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!'” That, loyal readers, is ONE title. Humorous, yes, but practical, no.