Linking to the Land of Lincoln - through song
Sufjan Stevens, Stace England
By Jeff Daniel
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Tuesday, Oct. 04 2005
As might be expected, pop culture references to Illinois have always been a bit
top-heavy. Having your northern
region dominated by a thriving metropolis like
Chicago, that toddlin' town, will do that.
Two recent indie music
releases, however, focus attention on areas outside the
confines of Cook County: Stace England's "Greetings from Cairo,
Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" (also known as "Come on feel the ILLINOISE.") In
both cases, downstate destinations
get their due.
Stevens, a Detroit singer-songwriter now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., chose the
Land of Lincoln for
the second of his projected 50-part series of concept
albums examining the nation's states. First up was his native Michigan.
album met with huge critical success and helped Stevens cement his reputation
as a gifted composer, poet and
amateur historian. One didn't have to be from
Wolverine country to enjoy Stevens' narratives.
Perhaps even more
so in the case of "Illinois." Atop an eclectic soundtrack
that ranges from folk to twee pop to Broadway musical, Stevens
corn maze in Godfrey, the January 2000 UFO sightings in Highland and Lebanon,
the legacy of Alton giant
Robert Wadlow, and the Superman mythology of
Yet he does so in ways that are at times so cryptic and
fleeting that the
result is an almost universal experience. A prime example of this takes place
in the disc's opening
track, "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Ill.,"
in which Stevens turns the specific event into a kind of meditation
spirituality. What might have been an opportunity for ironic kitsch instead
results in an act of poetic sincerity.
In these times, quite refreshing.
That opening tune may have been the best of the 22 tracks here, if not for one
Stevens' excursions into - does this sound familiar?- the Chicago area. In
"John Wayne Gacy Jr.," Stevens creates an unforgettably
beautiful pop melody,
the type that refuses to exit your brain, and pairs it with a haunting take on
one of the world's
most infamous killers. It's a high-wire act, to be sure,
with the songwriter able to deftly convey both horror and human
feeling. We can
only hope that he applies such skill when, or if, his musical journey takes him
Stace England, the journey on "Greetings from Cairo" begins and ends in the
southern Illinois region from which he hails.
If Steven is a wanderer, then
England is a settler.
But only in a geographical sense. When it comes to history
and politics and
musical styles, England and his changing lineup of guests - including former
Jason and the Scorchers
singer Jason Ringenberg - cover a lot of ground.
They move back and forth through time, covering an antebellum folk
("Going Down to Cairo"), then rocking through a bluesy take on modern political
graft there ("Buy My Votes.")
Lynch mob vigilantism. The hardships of the
Northern migration. The decay of small town America. From the subject matter,
hard to believe that this is the same performer who previously released "Lovey
Dovey All the Time," a collection of
power-pop love songs.
England writes in the disc's liner notes that "Cairo, Illinois, is the most
in America. No other city in the United States sprawls the
confluence of two great rivers, Northern and Southern culture,
potential and broken dreams quite like Cairo."
Not even, one might add, that sprawling city at the
opposite end of the state.