It is rare to find pop music that actually includes instruments. Horns are usually replaced by electronic sounds from a synthesizer. Even drums are heard less (in favor of Casio-like machines). Sufjan Stevens, however, uses a full range of instruments on every one of his songs on his most recent album, “Illinois.” As album number two in Stevens’ major musical undertaking and geographical project, the 50 States Project, “Illinois” is a breathtaking journey across the title state.
Every track has to do with some aspect of Illinois, whether its history or the people who live there. And while Stevens is educating us, he is also making beautiful music. Sometimes, like
on the song “Chicago,” he is accompanied by a full orchestra. Other times, like on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” it is just him and a piano.
Either way, every track on “Illinois” is valid. Another aspect that contributes to making “Illinois” a masterpiece is Stevens’ hauntingly hypnotic voice. He never tries to be impressive and go out of his range, he just stays comfortable, which makes the album enjoyable. By the time you reach the end of this 70-minute journey across Illinois, your jaw will be on the floor and your ears will be begging for more.