Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Honest Look at Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, Almost 5 Years After the Fact

It's now been almost five years since Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, now considered to be a classic. In fact, Paste Magazine just named it the best album of the decade. I have to admit, I bristled when I got to the end of the list and saw it at number one. "WHY??" you may ask! In fact, you may be one of the many who instantly hailed the record as genius when it was released back in 2005. I was not necessarily one of those people, and I'll try and explain why.

In my adult life, I've never seen such a large number of my artistically oriented friends all stand up at once and hail a piece of work the way I did when Illinois was released, and to be honest, it really wigged me out. The number one way to make me cynical about something is to universally praise it, and even though I bought the record, listened to it several times, and chose every time I thinned out my collection to KEEP it, I claimed (primarily to myself) that there was just no way it was as good as everybody said/thought it was. I maintained this position for the last 4 years. I think, also, that I perceived a certain link between Stevens' music and a shift in the overall musical zeitgeist, and (as has been the case with multiple shifts like this in the last 10-12 years) could not help but notice that, once again, the shift was in a direction that did not have much in common with my own creative vision for Dr. Pants, Weird Files, etc. (Frustrating.) Also, I perceived many of those who adopted this record as a vision beyond visions to be of a somewhat "cooler-than-thou" attitude about the whole thing, and that soured me even more (more about that in a minute).

Now, however, I find it to be time to reassess. Best album of the decade? Better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Better than Kid A? I don't have a definitive answer for that, especially since the amount of attention I really & truly gave to Illinois during the year after its release can quite possibly be construed as negligible at this point. So, after listening again, here are my thoughts:

It's no wonder people went wild over this record. So rarely (especially at the time) does someone in the milieu of "indie rock" actually create something so compositionally spectacular, with such amazing detail, arrangement-wise. The guy has an amazing command of music, and obviously knows a shitload more about arranging and theory than most of his listeners, I bet. Couple this with a lyrical sensibility that is all at once confessional and quirky, and you've got every hipster in the USA drooling on to his Radiohead t-shirt (add in the fact that Mr. Stevens is a Christian, and you've got every Christian hipster drooling all over his Pedro the Lion t-shirt as well. Sorry if that seems condescending. I wouldn't say it if it weren't kind of true). The problem with this is that any time all the uber-hip people stand up and point to something and scream "THAT'S COOL", many others (including me) will feel like this something has been co-opted, and not want anything to do with it anymore. I feel like this because I am not a hipster, and I feel looked down upon by hipsters. I feel perceived as someone who will "never be cool enough to really GET how COOL this something is". Because I'm a geek. My grid for appreciating things is different, and is more intellectual than just a streamlined, "zero in on the essence of cool" kind of approach. I kind of don't care how cool it is. I just want to know if it's any good. It doesn't need to be wearing a certain t-shirt or haircut in order to qualify as awesome. It just has to appeal to my sensibility as a person.

"But now, David, after listening again, do you LIKE IT???" I can now say that the answer to that question is an emphatic YES. It is a really good record, gorgeous, intricate, powerful, and, quite frankly, transcends the cultural box that I perceived it to be in 4 years ago. In other words, Illinois is, I think, better than any of the hipsters think it is, in that it will continue to be fantastically amazing after the "cool" factor has worn off, and THAT is the mark of a great record. It is my sincere hope that all my professors from music school hear or have heard this record as well, because it needs to be examined on a broader scale. It needs to be a record that is praised for its sheer musical value. Maybe it already has been praised/evaluated in this fashion, and I was too busy being cynical to pay attention. I kind of don't think it's possible for such a thing to happen when all the cool kids are drooling all over the record in question, however. You can't see/hear through the drool to know what's really going on.

The drool has worn off. Let us now enjoy Illinois in a pure manner again. Let us praise Sufjan Stevens the composer, the musical visionary. And for God's sake, stop talking about how cool he is.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

If something bears remembering 5 years later (an eternity in the modern world), then it is likely classic. I am late to the party with most things and didn't catch it the year it released (about 12 months delayed). Steven's holiday box set is a time enriched treasure in a similar way. Remarkable for it's simple sincerity with not a hint of cheese.