TOP TRACK: “Chicago”
Sufjan Stevens may have abandoned his ambitious plan to record an album for each of the 50 states, but that doesn’t make the second installment of his would-be epic any weaker. A slight departure from Stevens’ earlier stylistic dabbling, Illinois is where Stevens’ skills as both a composer and a storyteller complement each other best, resulting in a difficult and occasionally eerie body of minimalist indie folk.
It is a unique mix of songs, as densely ordered in their instrumentation as they are jam-packed with cultural allusions to Illinois history. Illinois opens on a subdued note, with echoing piano chords and Stevens’ signature half-whispered voice. The narrative expands from there, winding through serial killers, historic battles and UFO sightings before reaching “Chicago,” the album’s well-known stand-out track. It’s heartbreaking, with its orchestral swells and earnest affirmations, but like all of the album, it’s also innately alive in the sense of adventure it evokes.
— Dan Powell