Not that it’s ever been easy, but it’s especially hard not to feel conflicted about being an American these days. As the country falls further from grace in the global community, never have we seemed quite so willful, so fallible. Perhaps it’s always been this way. Using the city of Chicago as a lens through which to view the whole of our nation, Carl Sandburg expressed a century ago the same doubts and disappointments we feel today: for a land so full of greatness and promise and beauty, how can we have so little regard for others?
“Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again…,” Sandburg wrote in his 1916 volume of Chicago poems. “On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.” He watches the great Midwestern city “[u]nder the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs, / Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle.”
No wonder that Sufjan Stevens, a singer-songwriter grappling with his own questions about human failing, would look to Sandburg for inspiration. On Stevens’ fifth album, Illinois, the poet comes to him in a dream and entreats him to embark on his own inquiry into our flawed civilization. “I was asked to improvise / On the attitude, the regret of a thousand centuries of death,” Stevens sings.
Though he’s repeatedly been labeled as some kind of avant-folkie, Stevens’ music is too ambitious to slot into a neat subcategory. Illinois is the second in a planned series of albums paying tribute to all 50 states, and the record has a gorgeous sweep that incorporates a whole range of musical textures and moods—guitar, banjo, piano, horns, strings, accordion, vibraphone, glockenspiel, many of them played by Stevens himself. Though there are plenty of moments that emphasize his hushed, confessional singing, there are just as many where the instrumentation gushes with sorrow or joyousness or wonder, and a chorus of mostly female voices rushes in to emphasize or comment. Throughout, brief instrumental interludes isolate motifs and serve as transitions, but they’re also packed with their own themes, suggested by song titles like “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons.”
If anything, Stevens is a troubadour inspired equally by musical theater and a restless, experimental impulse. He did extensive research on Illinois for the album, reading not just Sandburg, but histories of the state and its cities and towns. As rooted as they are in real places and people, the songs serve more often as personal revelations or interior monologues for a string of characters. In tone and approach, Stevens’ lyrics don’t really compare to Sandburg’s bold poetry, yet he grabs hold of a similar idea: he looks to Illinois as a backdrop for, and mirror of, the striving and failing of humankind, specifically American. There’s a tension in his songs between the thrill of modernity and the recognition that something is fundamentally wrong with the world.
In “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” he captures the sense of excitement and progress that must have coursed through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery, even as he reminds us that America and the New World were built on the conquest of native tribes. In “Chicago,” he meditates on the pull of the big city and the rebirth and renewal it promises. One of the album’s highlights, the song chugs with a quickening pulse as it bursts into an elated chorus, but there’s always an undercurrent of mournfulness, especially on the verses, where Stevens sounds a stinging note of regret. “If I was crying,” he sings, “…it was for freedom / From myself and the land.”
“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” also alternates between muted verse and an eruptive chorus, on which Stevens’ backup singers sing the praises of Superman. Even though there’s a recognition of limitations, both human and superhero, the mood is one of genuine hopefulness, the idea that community can transcend the individual. “Only a steel man can be a lover / If he had hands to tremble all over / We celebrate our sense of each other / We have a lot to give one another,” everyone sings together. Of late, the song seems to be popping up everywhere—on college radio; drifting from a co-worker’s office; streaming out of a car window, as the driver sings along. It’s as though the song is doing exactly what it was intended to do: to bring people together.
Elsewhere, moments of horror and sadness abound, and it’s here we’re able to get a firmer sense of Stevens’ deeply Christian ethos. Much has been made of his music’s religious overtones, which the singer eschews talking about in interviews. Despite the Christian label, his music isn’t evangelical so much as it is a considered exploration of humanity’s relationship with God. If Stevens is moralizing, he does so in a way that recognizes that we’re all tainted by sin, particularly that of inflicting suffering on others. In “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” he relates the serial killer’s life and crimes in brief but chilling detail before concluding, “I am really just like him.”
In Stevens’ Illinois, God periodically makes an appearance to remind us of our inconsequentiality and our pridefulness. The album opens with a UFO sighting that has wholly spiritual implications—it’s described not as a craft from outer space, but as a ghostly form, an unknowable revelation. But nowhere is God’s power felt more keenly than in “Casimir Pulaski Day,” in which a young couple’s tentative relationship has been rent by cancer. Recalling the moment of his lover’s death and his disbelief, the singer has been stripped of everything, save his realization that he is helpless before God. “All the glory that the Lord has made / And the complications when I see His face / In the morning in the window,” Stevens murmurs. “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.”
Sequenced between the booming “Chicago” and “Man of Metropolis,” it’s a devastating moment, and it renders the scope of Illinois on a personal level. Amid the thrum of history and progress, we are all bound to suffer, simply because we are human. There is nothing that we can do, save to look heavenward and recognize our tiny place in the universe.