Our experiences are never objective; that’s what makes them wonderful, idealized, less than credible, more credible than mere facts, our own, and shared all at once. So imagine trying to capture the experience of an entire geographical region, not only in its vastness of space, but also in the vastness of time. If that seems daunting, try doing it fifty times. Sufjan Stevens never made it that far, but he did accomplish it twice: first with his album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State and then with Come on Feel the Illinoise.
It’s hard to name the “experience” of the state of Illinois. Is it the massive skyline of Chicago with it’s panhandlers and post-college clubers flanked by hipsters? Or the barren farm fields of central Illinois in mid-January. Or the strange drawl of those small town people in the south or is it the Land of Lincoln (whatever that means)? Seemingly the only way to capture the experience of a state is to give more questions than answers, as Stevens does on this album.
Stevens captures Illinois with all its beauty, boredom, terror, industrialization, loneliness and banjos… ok, the banjos are just one of the things Stevens uses to create the experience musically, but if you live in Illinois it’s hard not to want more banjos around the state after hearing this album.
He primarily does this through story, image, and sound. He tells the haunting tale of John Wayne Gacy, alludes to the Lincoln-Douglass debates, references the Sears Tower (no, I will NOT call it the Willis Tower) in a creepy homage to the rapture on the track “Seer’s Tower”, and rocks out (in an indie folk sort of way) as Illinois’ past political histories are raised from the dead.
How else can one album capture a state that is rural and urban, multi-cultured and culturally isolated, historically relevant and presently scattered? The seeming incongruity of the album both musically and lyrically (even the tracks are too varied for just one title), isn’t really an incongruity at all but is the effects of actual experience and thoroughness in conveying those experiences. And experiences are rarely as congruent as we want them to be, which is what makes them significant. So instead of making the album congruent, Stevens strives to capture the experiences of an entire state.