Sounding at times like The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Past” as interpreted by a roomful of high-school band geeks, “Illinois” is a 22-track concept album loosely based on the U.S. state of Illinois.
This alone may sound ambitious in the era iPod random play, but Sufjan Stevens has in fact promised 48 more albums, one for each state in the union. (His first entry, 2003’s simpler and mellower “Michigan,” is being simultaneously released in Japan.) While this may sound like a gimmick, “Illinois” itself is close to genius; it plays as a classic pop song cycle with a grand complexity in instrumentation and arrangement, intellect and emotion.
The music shifts from whispered tenor and acoustic guitar to huge choruses backed by legions of instruments. Disparate pieces are thematically woven together by the humor of an optimist who knows what it is to be young in the American heartland. In “Casamir Pulaski Day,” a friend’s cancer-stricken body is prayed over at a Tuesday night Bible study, and though “nothing ever happens,” faith, love and hope remain.
Stevens’ Christian faith permeates the album, adding a rare mood of sunny-day comfort and human interconnectedness, and, from such elements, magic is conjured: “Illinois” is both touching and joyous from beginning to end.
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