Come on Feel The Illinoise

A Sufjan Stevens “Illinois” Appreciation Post

It was 12 years ago this October that I was sitting at a show featuring 2/3 of the comedy group Stella at some upstairs room of a venue in the French Quarter (maybe HoB, maybe Tips; I have lost my memory). Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter came to New Orleans, and at the time, my friend and I were obsessed with the Stella Shorts. Aside: I’m still quoting lines from this video to this day, but I am not in regular contact with anyone from that time. So I guess this is how senility happens- me babbling around saying “I WANNA SOME REAL FUCKIN’ BROOKLYN PIZZA!”. I don’t regret it. I got early Bradley Cooper, early Sam Rockwell (actually not that early of Sam Rockwell, but earlier…). And some other people. I could really write a post about this on it’s own, but nah, I’m rein it in here and focus.

Anyway, Michael Showalter, whom I had a really inappropriate hungry crush on considering I was barely 18 (BARELY LEGAL), was making jokes which I don’t remember super well, but there were two that stick out to me even now. One about Scott Stapp sounding like he had an Entemann’s powdered donut in his throat. The other one being something along the lines of “That Sufjan Stevens album is really great!” in a tone that I still am not sure was meant to be ironic, a joke, or serious (because, spoiler alert, the album he was talking about is fucking amazing and the whole subject of this post). 18-year-old me who was still very much listening to a lot of emo and relatively untouched by life (you know, that prefrontal cortex growth— just ask my parents about my driving history) was like “THAT IS HOW YOU SAY HIS NAME?!” and without really knowing what I was trying to think or how to name it….I felt it sounded so pretentious. Me, in my light wash bootcut jeans, blonde hair with all my bullshit was a damn fool.

So, yea, I mellowed over the years and stopped being AS stupid (DISCLAIMER: I’m still kinda stupid). Here is what I have learned to love about Sufjan Stevens:

  1. Dude is talented. He plays many instruments and incorporates them into his work.
  2. His real name is Sufjan. It’s not a pseudonym.
  3. He played in the Danielson Family. One of my favorites from a bit back.
  4. He plays with religious and Christian themes in a vulnerable way that make religion and Christianity to someone who has usually felt pretty marginalized in regards to both…kind of get it. More on that below.
  5. He was nominated for Best Original Song for “Mystery of Love” (Call Me by Your Name) the 2018 Oscars. St. Vincent performed with him. Gucci Mane later stole Sufjan’s Oscar style (both looked great).
  6. He is bae.

However, most of all, I and everyone’s mother, love his album 2005 “Illinois” most of all.

I’ll share a personal story first. 2016 was a rough year. At the beginning of the year, I was contemplating moving to Texas to stay with my parents because I was so depressed I wasn’t functioning like a normal human for a few months (I don’t remember much from that time, and I have to ask Sam for specifics; they aren’t good). I was more of a primordial slop with limbs. With Sam’s help (I was like his own little Kuato), I started off the year clawing my way out of what I now know was probably one of the most dangerous depressions I have ever had. Then we thought we would move away happily ever after and prosperously from Illinois to Nebraska, where I was generally lost and found out I had a slight bit of cancer (doesn’t matter what stage it is…here you have the “c” word inside of you, and you evaluate your mortality, legacy, blah blah blah). I was disconnected and lost from mostly everything I had loved (people, places, things). There were good bits too (got engaged, moved back, made some great friends in NE, etc.).

When we had moved and I was not worried about killing myself or myself killing me, I was trying to learn how to feel again– good feelings and bad feelings. On many of my most dreamy or lost days, “Illinois” helped me feel. It also made my stomach hurt and my throat tighten because I missed “home”– both the place and idea of that place.

I think that physical tightness and butterflies in my stomach reaction I had during that time really sums up “Illinois”. You travel through all of the feelings: happiness, grief, creepiness, adventure, stoicism, drama, and on and on.

You really have to listen to the whole album, preferably while on a long drive or bike (or on a long train ride).

This post has gone and gotten way too long for my tastes. So I am just going to share my top few songs from this album (ordered how they appear on the album):

“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
As Youtube user honk of despair put it, “And thus begins one of the greatest albums of all time.” This song is supposedly based on a true story, but there are certainly some biblical metaphors going on here. It’s rousing.

“John Wayne Gayce, Jr.”
Perhaps my favorite song on the album– how can something be so beautiful, sad, and so, so creepy? If you know me, you know I have a fascination with serial killers. Yep, I’m one of those freaks. Anyway, this song takes facts about John Wayne Gayce, the infamous greater Chicago-area (he went elsewhere too, but we claim this one) serial killer. The following lyrics are taken directly from what we know about Gayce’s childhood:

“His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed,
Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts when the swing set hit his head,
The neighbors, they adored him,
For his humor and his conversation.”

There is part where Sufjan quietly and shrilly exclaims “Oh myyyy goooooooood,” regarding neighbors finding out about the murders that is simultaneously chilling and sad.

This song is both horrifying regarding the crimes and what the victims went through, but Sufjan really effs with you when he pulls on your heartstrings about the killer himself and his compulsion and how we are all monsters:

“And in my best behavior,
I am really just like him,
Look beneath the floor boards,
For the secrets I have hid.”

“Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
One of the more low key songs on the album. Another plucky one. It’s about a stepmom that seems to just be trying and some history of Decatur, Illinois.However, this song made the cut because I enjoy Civil War history and these two verses:

“Sangamon River it overflowed,
It caused a mudslide on the banks of the operator,
Civil war skeletons in their graves,
They came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator.”

“The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain,
We go riding on the abolition grain train,
Steven A. Douglas was a great debater,
But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator.”

After the mind fuck you have after listening to “John Wayne Gayce, Jr.”, “Jacksonville” is a plucky tune– we’re talking banjo, people. I love the banjo. It is a truly underrated instrument. This song always makes me full of resolve and a bit stoic, but as soon as those strings hit, I can be turned into a pile of mush.

This song is titled after Jacksonville, IL (duh), which is a sort of dying tiny town with a lot of history (a lot of the earlier history being pretty progressive) and the geographic center of Illinois. The song covers the Underground Railroad, Civil War, Hellen Keller, and a lot of other things that I had no idea about until I read more about the song.

“I’m not afraid of the black man running,
He’s got it right, he’s got a better life coming,
I don’t care what the captain said,
I fold it right at the top of my head,
I lost my sight and the state packs in,
I follow my heart and it leads me right to Jackson.”

“Chicago” (duh)
So this is the “hit” from the album. If you’ve heard any SS stuff, this is probably the one you’ve heard. I think it is in a few movies and what not. There are few greater feelings that driving into Chicago with this song playing as you drive up Lakeshore Drive.

This song isn’t even really about Chicago besides SS or whomever is the subject of this song starting over with not a lot to show in Chicago before they move on to New York. I identify with the first few verses because, to be honest, it is a little biographical for me. I imagine that’s not a stretch for the many of us who aren’t native to the area and moved here without a lot of brains, money, or hope but the grittiness and knowledge that failure was not an option for once in our lives.

“I fell in love again,
All things go, all things go,
Drove to Chicago,
All things know, all things know.”

“We sold our clothes to the state,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
I made a lot of mistakes,
In my mind, in my mind.”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”
My second favorite song on the album. This song makes me cry, and when you listen you will understand why. It is very obviously about a childhood/longterm friend (and maybe girlfriend or boyfriend?) dying and dealing with doubt in your faith.

“Tuesday night at the Bible study,
We lift our hands and pray over your body,
But nothing ever happens.”

Regardless of your faith in religion or a deity, I think we all struggle with doubt and losing hope or faith in whatever thing you found hope or faith in– especially during our hardest times (death and other losses).  The lyrics are incredibly introspective and insightful. Most Christian people I know seem almost fanatical about their faith in a way that, for someone like me (which, if we’re going to categorize it, is agnostic but it is far more complex than that [or maybe not that complex at all!] because I don’t make sense and never claimed to and feel different things at different times) is incredibly alienating. This song is like reading someone’s private account of losing faith. Pure intentions sidetracked by suspicions and a burden of proof.

Sufjan says they were praying over his friend’s body (I am imagining something that looks like a seance) and nothing ever happens in the way a kid who is finding out Santa isn’t real would say it. He seems to be alluding what they are doing is kind of silly. And aren’t rituals silly? But we do them anyway because we’re desperate for a miracle.

The entire song is gut wrenching, and the last few lines, after the subject has died, really tackle the doubt:

“All the glory that the Lord has made,
And the complications when I see His face,
In the morning in the window.”

“All the glory when he took our place,
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face,
And he takes and he takes and he takes.”

We can all identify with a shaken belief. Whether that’s in God, a loved one we thought we trusted or knew, a system, a theory, or anything else. Doubt and grief are part of the human experience, and regardless of religious beliefs or status, it will happen.

And there you have it. Enjoy “Illinois”.

Author: Keelin Billue

Chicago-based writer by way of Alabama, New Orleans, and Nashville. Writes primarily about music, sports (sort of), and the topics that piss people off at work and family holidays.

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