|BELIEVE THE HYPE? SUFJAN STEVENS' ILLINOIS.|
Popular music doesn't need any more deep thinkers. It always is on the lookout for smart songwriters and intelligent composers, but deep thinkers we can all do without. If you'd rather be a novelist or a playwright, please, go do those things. Just leave me and my stereo alone.
Not everyone feels the same way as me. In fact, a lot of music critics
-- especially those on the fringe -- love artists such as Sufjan Stevens, guys who have many creative aspirations and decide to inflict some of their artistic intentions on indie rock. Without them, we poor slobs would be stuck listening to simple three-minute songs about love and friendship, never realizing that the real insights can be found in concept albums and woodwinds.
When in 1999 the Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt decided to record 69 Love Songs, a panoply of
romantic ditties in as many idioms as he could remember, he advertised his considerable gifts with a high-concept gimmick -- he gave his semipopular music a marketing angle Spin could easily sell to its readers. Now comes Stevens, who with his new album Illinois continues his goal to try to record an album about each state in the union.
One shouldn't judge Illinois on its fidelity to the actual state, but since I was born there, it's very hard not to. I remember it fondly as a place with real people with real problems and real lives, three things almost entirely absent from Stevens' interpretation of the Land of Lincoln. Of course, he would explain that his album is simply an interpretation of the history of Illinois: He's not a biographer, he's an artist. It's certainly his right -- just as it is for a filmmaker to differ wildly from the book he's adapting to seek out his own vision. But that's where the trouble comes in. Stevens' vision feels as insular as many other new talented songwriters. He has feelings to express, but he's too proud of his pretensions to let his emotions breathe. And that's why Illinois might as well be New Mexico or Uranus -- change the cities and the incidents, 'cuz to him they're all the same.
In interviews, Stevens (a devout Christian who taught writing in the past to eke out a living) seems like a well-mannered, grounded guy. But just because he doesn't sound like a Gallagher brother doesn't mean he's not exceptionally precious in that grad-school kind of way. "It's really about a sensory experience and getting fully involved and fully entrenched in the pageantry of Illinois," he said recently about the album, for which he supposedly did extensive research about the state in order to properly do it justice. One look at the lyric sheet, however, and you're left with the sense that the research involved finding people and places that could match the songwriter's agenda. For all its stylistic range and melodic treats, Illinois feels like one more art project pretending to be a record. Actually, it's not pretending to be a record at all -- in its passive-aggressive way, it thinks it's better than "conventional" records, which in a way it is.
Illinois is more personal and distinct than a lot of its contemporaries, even on the indie racks. But so what? If I have to suffer through overly arranged song suites, his backup choral group dubbed "The Illinoismaker Choir," and a song title like "Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few" in order to be hip, then I'll be a philistine and just dig on Missy Elliott.
Much like Brian Wilson's Smile or the Eels' Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Illinois is wall-to-wall pretty as the songs flow one into another, sometimes using instrumental bridges as connective tissue. But Wilson and E are born composers -- they have an inherent dramatic reach to their material -- while Stevens seems merely fancy. His songs fuss over their tempo changes and eclectic instrumentation -- lots of banjo and accordion and other such things for that all-important "quirky" feel -- but for what purpose? To make the songs seem more significant? To signal his ambitions and artistic credentials? If Illinois was a high-school theater production, you'd tell the young auteur that it was sure, uh, creative -- how'd you get all those ideas, young man? And as the kid walked away, thinking he really wowed you, you'd be reminded exactly why you went into accounting in the first place.
Lyrically, Illinois could not seem more like the work of a failed novelist trying to prove how talented he is with words. Under Stevens' masterful eye, Decatur -- which, in fact, is a city with crime problems and racial tension so great Jesse Jackson visited for some self-serving publicity -- is just an excuse to tell a lame-ass story about a bad stepmom. Elsewhere, serial killer John Wayne Gacy is a narrative springboard for some pseudo-profound nonsense about how Stevens can relate to the murderer: "Look beneath the floorboards," he warns, "for the secrets I have hid." How deep, how poetic, how condescending. Cribbing from a true-life tragedy and turning it into a self-obsessed meditation doesn't reveal anything about a state anymore than incorporating banjos and oboes doesn't mean you're reflecting the diversity of America.
On the few occasions Stevens calms down his cleverness, he justifies the absurdity of his project. He turns the oft-mocked (in Illinois, anyway) holiday for Casimir Pulaski into a remembrance of a friend who died on that day. And on "The Seer's Tower," Chicago's Sears Tower skyscraper gets an ominous tribute anchored by a solitary piano - it's so spare it underlines how ridiculously chaotic the rest of Illinois is. And many of the instrumental passages throughout are quite lovely. But they don't lead anywhere. They don't connect.
I'm not sure what annoys me more -- that showoff artists spend time constructing these artificial aural soundscapes or that critics fall for it. I guess if you're stuck listening to sound-alike retro garage bands and teenpop most of the time, a little orchestral ambition seems revolutionary by comparison. But don't tell me a record like Illinois is more "authentic" or "realistic" than the Top 40 in terms of rendering real life or the State of our Union. With their commonplace language and accessibility, radio hits speak to universal conditions: lust, love, regret, happiness. By comparison, Sufjan Stevens is very stubbornly living in his head -- he's hermetically sealed. And therefore his Illinois isn't my Illinois or yours or anyone's -- it's just his, and he's not eccentric enough to make his precocious fixations fascinating to the rest of us. Despite all the extra trumpets, choirs and vibraphones backing him up, it sounds like a lonely place. It's hard being an Artist, I reckon.
For all its deep thinking, Illinois works best when you're not paying attention to it. He's got some melodic gifts once you ignore the album's thematic structure and its silly big themes. I hate to tell him, but the Sufjan Stevens I like best is the simple pop craftsman -- the Artist will have to look elsewhere for validation. It's like what an old screenwriting professor used to tell us: If you're interested in writing material that's meaningful to you and nobody else, you're in the wrong business. That's what journals are for.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.