Summary

With two states down and only 48 to go, Sufjan Stevens' ambitious musical map of the Unites States of America should be completed -- if he puts out one a year -- sometime around 2053. It's a daunting task (and not an entirely original one at that), but if each subsequent record is as good as Illinois, fans who live long enough to witness the project's completion will no doubt find themselves to be scholars of both state history and its narrator's shape-shifting soul. Stevens' soulful folk epics, as played by his signature mini-orchestra, have changed little since his 2003 foray into Michigan -- a charge that may cause some grumbling among that album's detractors -- but there's a newfound optimism that runs through much of Illinois that echoes the state's "Gateway to the West" pioneering spirit. Glorious road trip-ready cuts like "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!," and "Chicago" have an expansiveness that radiates with the ballast of history and the promise of new beginnings. Stevens has done his research, with references to everyone from Abe Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the ghost of Carl Sandburg to John Wayne Gacy -- the latter provides one the song cycle's most affecting moments. The lush (yet still distinctly lo-fi) indie pop melodies draw as much from classic rock as they do progressive folk. "Jacksonville," with its four-chord banjo lurch, mines "Old Man"-era Neil Young, disco strings dance around "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!," while the rousing pre-finale "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" is pure Peanuts-infused Vince Guaraldi as filtered through the ambiguous kaleidoscope of Danielson Famile spiritualism. There's a distinct community theater vibe to the whole affair that may or may not be the result of numerous photo shoots in which the players are dressed in adult-style Boy Scout uniforms -- it brings to mind the Blaine Players from Christopher Guest's small-town theater parody Waiting for Guffman -- but the majority of Illinois is alarmingly earnest. Stevens may be a snake-oil salesman, but he's got pretty good stuff, and like many of history's most untrustworthy wordsmiths, he somehow manages to switch the opportunist off and turn on the human being each time the listener gets suspicious of his intentions. ~ James Christopher Monger