Thursday, October 13, 2005

Review: Sufjan Stevens, (Come On Feel The) Illinoise

Every six months or so comes one of those buzz discs, the kind that every critic is thrusting in front of you like it's the second coming, but actually stopping to pick it up seems like too much of a chore, too much responsibility, like making yourself actually sit down and watch Citizen Kane or Schindler's List instead of plopping down in front of Pulp Fiction for the 20th time. Plus, those albums are generally just inaccessible enough that listening to 30-second online samples doesn't really do it for you; there's no hook to grab you. But eventually the guilt takes hold and you buy it. And on first listen, of course, you hate it. But maybe you come back a few months later and next thing you know it's your favorite album ever. That's happened to me a few times; the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin comes immediately to mind, a disc I put off buying, loathed on first listen, and then couldn't stop playing once I gave it a chance. The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs box set had a similar effect.

And so with Sufjan Stevens' 2005 release (Come On Feel The) Illinoise. Or at least it started out that way. Jeez, talk about glowing press. Article after article about this thing, and Stevens' vow to make an album for every state (this is his second, following Michigan, which wasn't as heavily promoted and which I haven't checked out yet). So, yeah, I caved. And, after the initial hesitation, I fell in love with it. Or at least the first half. It starts out just like all those other critics' dreams, utterly unique yet bringing to mind loads of other artists -- orchestral lushness, gorgeous lyrical balladry, campy cheesiness, over-the-top prog-like flourishes, making me think of the Flaming Lips and Magnetic Fields, sure, but also Neutral Milk Hotel and Elliott Smith. Lyrically, it seems to be an assortment of small-town tales, maybe a middle-America response to the Kinks' takes of pastoral Britain in Village Green Preservation Society.

Unfortunately, after the contagious wackiness of the title track, it slides downhill, with way too many meandering slow songs and instrumental interludes. For the first few songs I was so excited by the overall weirdness of the thing that I could overlook its flaws, but by the end I was just. Bored. Silly.

But, hey, I'm gonna give it time. Albums that go out of the way to be different, challenging yet warm, do earn a bit of extra indulgence. I'll see how it turns out.


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