Startled Feathers Flying: Sufjan’s Illinois, HP, 2005

I just reread this piece for the first time in a few years. I do like it. Looking at it now I was pleasantly surprised by the “Whack!” I wrote into the description of Casimir Pulaski Day. And I must have really trusted Hot Press readers that they would know where Islandeady is. It’s the townland halfway between Castlebar and my mum’s home place of Westport, just to the right as you head west — like, obviously. Anyway, Up Sufjan and Up Mayo 🥊🏅

The big news about Sufjan Stevens is that he plans to record a full album about each of the states of the USA. This is number two of 50, barring annexations, after 2003’s ode to his home patch Michigan. Well, this just in: there’s no fucking way.

That the mooted project would take 96 years to complete at his current prolific rate of recording is not the issue. On the evidence of his song titles, he’s a bloody-minded guy (‘To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament, And It Involves An Inner Tube, Bath Mats, And 21 Able-Bodied Men!’). He may indeed record 50 albums and name them after states. More luck to him. But if he does, it will be a distraction. Sufjan Stevens is no more making records about Illinois than he is about Islandeady.

True, ‘They Are Night Zombies!!’ – epic violin-driven funk in the manner of Curtis Mayfield — owes something to its home place. And Illinoise is often huge, the size of the state. The scale of the arrangements for choir, strings, and brass makes showpieces like ‘Jacksonville’ and ‘Chicago’ sound like the ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ as sung by the Polyphonic Spree.

Still, Stevens can namedrop Abe Lincoln all he likes (‘Decatur’), or unconvincingly compare himself to a Chicago serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’). The fact remains that the heart of this album lies outside Illinois; outside geography and biography; outside physical space at all. It lies in ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, named for a local public holiday and sung over banjo, with the minimum of fuss, in a rock-solid whisper, as an elegy to a lover.

As the song opens they’re hoping for a miracle: “Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens”. She dies of cancer of the bone on a pale March morning and in a scene so deftly drawn that you’re in the room with him, the narrator sits in the hospital, sure he can still see her breathing. He’s dazed, until outside a bird swoops, smacking— whack! — into the window. Startled feathers flying is what he remembers of sitting alone with the body of his young love, and the betrayal of all the hopes they had. (The bird, a cardinal, is the Illinois state bird. Make of that what you will.)

You can set out to write or sing about states or nations or the global sweep of human history. But states are just collections of people and history an accumulation of moments like these.
When music articulates the reality and mystery and majesty of the moment, suddenly albums that soundtrack states are small potatoes. We have universes on our hands here.

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