Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

Sufjan Stevens is an Indie artist with some serious musical chops. He has a style that is sort of a blend of indie folk and minimalist chamber music. He also is well known for being a deeply spiritual person with a very mystical interpretation of Christianity. As I wrote this I still had not really listened to this album enough to call myself a fan, but I appreciated the craftsmanship in his music and fully expected his work to grow on me and age like fine a whiskey, or a bible verse. In fact, in the course of researching his work for this blog it HAS grown on me. His album, Illinois was introduced in 2005 as the second of a promised series with one album for each state (the first state was Michigan). Reportedly, tracks involving Oregon and Rhode Island have been written, but there have been no further releases in the series. The album made many critics list for top album of the year and then later the decade.
From Wikipedia:
Best of the year (2005) lists
PublisherAccoladeRank
Amazon.comBest of 2005: Top 100 Editors' Picks#1
Amazon.comBest of 2005: Editors' Picks in Alternative Rock#2
NPR's All Songs ConsideredThe Best Music of 2005#1
NME50 best albums of 2005#7
No RipcordTop 50 Albums of 2005#1
Pitchfork MediaTop 50 Albums of 2005#1
PopMattersBest 50 Albums of 2005#2
SpinThe 40 Best Albums of 2005#8
Stylus MagazineTop 50 Albums of 2005#10

Best of the decade (2000–2009) lists
PublisherAccoladeRank
NPR's All Songs ConsideredThe Decade's 50 Most Important RecordingsUnranked, out of 50 recordings
NMEThe Top 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade#17
No RipcordThe No Ripcord Years (1999–2009)Unranked, one of six reviewed for 2005
PasteThe 50 Best Albums of the Decade#1
Pitchfork MediaThe Top 200 Albums of the 2000s#16
Rolling Stone100 Best Albums of the '00s#78
SlantBest of the Aughts: Albums#9
When the revenant came down
We couldn't imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh, God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form (or what it was!)
Incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

A quiet and dreamy melodic piece that starts with some rhythmic piano player before ethereal vocals kick in with flute accompaniment. As the title would have you believe, it is concerning a UFO sighting. Apparently the song has a basis is true events as it relates a UFO sighting made several police officers on January 5, 2000. The song describes the sighting in a literal yet impressionistic style while symbolically tying the event to a religious experience, There seems to be some debate as to the interpretation, as I found at Song Meanings when I was researching the songs lyrics. From the forum on the site:
I just got done watching a program about the first civilizations of earth, and how it is believed by some that alien beings came to earth and gave us a gentle push in the direction we are in now; Teaching us how to build, sow seeds, etc. Maybe this is a reference to that theory as well, that our first perception of God/s were an alien race. It was interesting to see how the mayans built pyramids of varying sizes on one sight, that from the air resembled our solar system, including one small structure that could've represented Pluto, allthough Pluto was discovered only 3 decades ago(and sadly is now not a planet).
I see the biblical references, and I can tell Sufjan is most definitely a spiritual man, but I just thought I would throw this out there, since oddly enough I just got done watching the show.-enjoybradon February 24, 2008
The comment thread on the Song Meanings site is interesting and a good read with quite a few perspectives on the subjects of Christianity and UFO's.

If all this has you intrigued, here is a amateur video a fan created for the song:




The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!/Track Two


The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!' is one of the longest song title I can recall. The song itself is short. Here is a fan made video of it to enjoy:




I find the song to be to very reminiscent of Phillip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi: Life In The Balance.I also think Stevens is aware of the connection and is making it intentionally. From our old friend wikipededia:
According to Hopi Dictionary: Hopìikwa Lavàytutuveni, the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi (Hopi pronunciation: [kojɑːnisˈkɑtsi]) is defined as "life of moral corruption and turmoil" or "life out of balance" The prefix koyaanis– means "corrupted" or "chaotic", and the word qatsi means "life" or "existence" literally translating koyaanisqatsi as "chaotic life" The film also defines the word as "crazy life", "life in turmoil", "life disintegrating", and "a state of life that calls for another way of living"
If you are not already familiar with  Koyaanisqatsi: Life In The Balance, it is an amazing film.Here is a trailer for the film followed by a live performance of the peice at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009.




Ok, after that digression, back to the subject at hand. The Blackhawk war is described by Wikipedia as follows:
The Black Hawk War was a brief conflict fought in 1832 between the United States and Native Americans headed by Black Hawk, a Sauk leader. The war erupted soon after Black Hawk and a group of Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos known as the "British Band" crossed the Mississippi River into the U.S. state of Illinois in April 1832. Black Hawk's motives were ambiguous, but he was apparently hoping to avoid bloodshed while resettling on land that had been ceded to the United States in a disputed 1804 treaty.
American officials, convinced that the British Band was hostile, mobilized a frontier army. With few U.S. Army soldiers in the region, most American troops were part-time, poorly trained militiamen. Hostilities began on May 14, 1832, when the militia opened fire on a delegation from the Native Americans. Black Hawk responded by attacking the militia force, soundly thrashing them at the Battle of Stillman's Run. He led his band to a secure location in what is now southern Wisconsin. As U.S. forces pursued Black Hawk's band, Native Americans conducted raids against forts and settlements. Some Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi warriors with grievances against Americans took part in these raids,  although most members of those tribes tried to avoid the conflict. The Menominee and Dakota tribes, already at odds with the Sauks and Meskwakis, supported the Americans.
Commanded by General Henry Atkinson, the U.S. troops tried to track down the British Band. Militia under Colonel Henry Dodge caught up with the British Band on July 21 and defeated them at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Black Hawk's band, weakened by hunger, death, and desertion, retreated towards the Mississippi. On August 2, American soldiers attacked the remnants of the British Band at the Battle of Bad Axe, killing or capturing most of them. Black Hawk and other leaders escaped, but later surrendered and were imprisoned for a year.
The Black Hawk War is now often remembered as the conflict that gave young Abraham Lincoln his brief military service. Other notable American participants included Winfield ScottZachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis. The war gave impetus to the US policy of Indian removal, in which Native American tribes were pressured to sell their lands and move west of the Mississippi River.
The perception of the Native Americans, who are the obvious speakers in the quotation marked title, was certainly an out of balance life, such as in the film I suspect Sufjan Stevens was paying tribute to. The desire to achieve balance was the driving force behind the attempted resettlement with flared up into the full scale conflict. I would go as far as to say that the notion of land ownership in general, likely was seen as a sign of life being out of balance to the Native Americans.

To be honest, I was unfamiliar with the Blackhawk war before beginning to write this post. In the course of my research I found a few videos worth sharing about that battle as well as about Lincolns place in it. I hope they can shed some enlightened background on the war.








Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)/Track Three


Continuing our journey through Sufjan Stevens opus on Illinois, I am finding this album to be a starting point for a wide study of midwestern history as well as a journey through some of Stevens spiritual beliefs. This third track on the album does not disappoint in this regard. Also, it is a pretty entertaining song and worth a little dissection.Here is a video with lyrics.


Oh, great intentions
I've got the best of interventions
But when the ads come
I think about it now

In my infliction
Entrepreneurial conditions
Take us to glory
I think about it now

Cannot conversations cull united nations?
If you got the patience, celebrate the ancients
Cannot all creation call it celebration?
Or united nation, put it to your head

Oh, great white city
I've got the adequate committee
Where have your walls gone?
I think about it now

Chicago, in fashion, the soft drinks, expansion
Oh, Columbia!
From Paris, incentive, like Cream of Wheat invented
The Ferris Wheel!

Oh, great intentions
Covenant with the imitation
Have you no conscience?
I think about it now

Oh, God of Progress
Have you degraded or forgot us?
Where have your laws gone?
I think about it now

Ancient hieroglyphic or the South Pacific
Typically terrific, busy and prolific

Classical devotion, architect promotion
Lacking in emotion, think about it now

Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?
Oh, Columbia!
Amusement or treasure, these optimistic pleasures
Like the Ferris Wheel!

Cannot conversations cull united nations?
If you got the patience, celebrate the ancients

Columbia!

I cried myself to sleep last night
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window
I was hypnotized, I was asked
To improvise
On the attitude, the regret
Of a thousand centuries of death

Even with the heart of terror and the superstitious wearer
I am riding all alone
I am writing all alone

Even in my best condition, counting all the superstition
I am riding all alone
I am running all alone

And we laughed at the beatitudes of a thousand lines
We were asked at the attitudes
They reminded us of death

Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

And I cried myself to sleep last night
For the Earth, and materials, they may sound just right to me

Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

The track begins with a pounding machine-like melody on the piano joined quickly by the rest of the band who play in a fast rhythmic style that is evocative of the machines that powered a great yet emerging industrial powerhouse of a city. As Stevens begins chanting the lyrics the narrator seems to say that we as a people may have noble thoughts and ideals and we may even have programs in place to help us reach our lofty goals but when the ads come he seems to say we are diverted. He continues his reflection that entrepreneurial goals over shadow our intentions with its illusions of glory. The Exposition in Chicago, like all Worlds Fairs was a celebration of commercial success and as such becomes a example of the kind of glory that success can bring. As my last post showed, the Exposition was about as over the top and built to impress as any other in human history.

After a few lines a chorus replies in a call and response fashion to his introduction like ghosts from the era if the Exposition. The mood he creates here is quite interesting and suggestive of the feelings and sounds I have heard in my life when a crowd is surging towards the gates of some event or festival. Its a certain sort of exited murmuring that pulse and surges with the progress towards the turnstiles. The crowd doesn't seem to share the narrators fascination with the commercialism of the event. They are drawn by the exotic, the educational. To them it is a party, and if it provides a common experience to the nation so much the better.
The narrator returns and observes that the Exposition had no permanence. The great White City is no longer standing.

The chorus answers and they will will not be deterred. The great White City may be gone, but lots of things debuted at the fair live on. Chicago was in fashion and the event helped solidify its greatness as a city in the worlds mind. Soft drinks were available and American expansion was celebrated. Even Cream of Wheat and the Ferris Wheel entered the scene at the Exposition.

The narrator counters with a certain anguish that so much what could have been truly great was just an imitation lacking the genuine, He then seems to say that if progress only leads us to cheap imitation, it has been perverted and is not leading us to glory.

The crowd rolls on cheering the sights of the South Pacific, the excitement of the fair and noting only in passing a certain absence of the original by asking what would Frank Lloyd Wright say. Regardless of his opinion they love it and shout Columbia in celebration of its glory.

Thus ends this first part of the song largely unresolved in its conflict in the mind of the narrator while the fair goers blissfully enjoy the fair with no apparent notice or concern for those things that trouble the narrator. Part I ends with a fun instrumental section that provides a sort of impressionistic sound scape of the fair that we are leaving behind before moving to part 2 of the song. Sufjan Stevens broke up the two halves of the song with this instrumental bridge, I will break the two halves of my analysis of this song with an imagined trailer for the White City if it were today. I figure that the advertising angle fits in well with the themes of the song.




After this the narrator continues his reflections as he is visited by another ghost from a slightly later time, that of Carl Sandburg, The second half of the song I find to be a tough nut to crack. The narrator says he cried himself to sleep. The joy of the revelers could not escape his sense of loss. Carl Sandburg reminds the narrator of centuries of death leading us to were are now, in a shallow representation of true glory.The narrator realizes in spite of our confidence and ability to laugh at the quaint values of the past that the best that he can conceive is still leading to nothing but death. It saddens the narrator that he too is a product of his time and must make his own journey if he is to escape the cycle of decay he finds around him. He MUST act with integrity. And evil cannot escape true goodness "Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level".

The darkness end of this track foreshadows the next track about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. In the next section will see where Sufjan Stevens takes that unpleasant subject. I'm not much of a true crime kind of guy so we will see how engaged I become on the subject as I study it. Temper your expectations.


John Wayne Gacy, Jr./Track Four

I remembered when John Wayne Gacy Jr.was arrested as a serial killer in December of 1978 . I was pretty young though and never took a lot of interest in the particulars of the case. I'm not a fan of crime stories in general, so I never looked into it later. Until now.  I did remember something in general about Gacy being a particularly bizarre killer. I also knew he was sort of a rock star to the world of serial killers.

In a nutshell, John Wayne Gacy was by all appearances a model citizen. He was an active member of the Jaycees, a successful businessman and a man who was a member of a clown troop that performed for hospitalized children. But he led a double life. In the evenings he would becomes a sadistic homosexual masochist which, with increasing violence, led to murder. Again and again and again. It is unclear how many people he actually killed, but in the end he was convicted of 33 murders. Before his arrest homicide detectives were coming closer and closer to figuring out the mayhem Gacy had caused. A warrant was served and the investigating officers found human reamins in the crawl space under Gacy's house. The following excerpt is a little long, but explains his arrest and confession and describes the crimes more clearly than I probably could.
From Wikipedia:

Arrest and confession

After being informed that police had found human remains in his crawl space and that he would now face murder charges, Gacy told officers he wanted to "clear the air,"[159] adding that he knew his arrest was inevitable since he had spent the previous evening on the couch in his lawyers' office.
In the early hours of December 22, 1978, Gacy confessed to police that since 1972, he had committed approximately 25 to 30 murders, all of whom he falsely claimed were teenage male runaways or male prostitutes,[160] whom he would typically abduct from Chicago's Greyhound Bus station, from Bughouse Square or simply off the streets. The victims would often be grabbed by force or conned into believing Gacy—often carrying a sheriff's badge and placing spotlights on his black Oldsmobile—was a policeman[161] and would be lured to his house with either the promise of a job with his construction company or with an offer of money for sex.
Once back at Gacy's house, the victims would be handcuffed or otherwise bound, then choked with a rope or a board as they were sexually assaulted. Gacy would often stick clothing in the victims' mouths to muffle their screams. Many of his victims had been strangled with a tourniquet, which Gacy referred to as his "rope trick." Occasionally, the victim had convulsed for an "hour or two" after the rope trick before dying. When asked where he drew the inspiration for the two-by-four found at his house in which he had manacled many of his victims, Gacy stated he had been inspired to construct the device from reading about the Houston Mass Murders.[162]
The victims were usually lured alone to his house, although on approximately three occasions,[160] Gacy had what he called "doubles"—occasions wherein he killed two victims on the same evening. After death, the victims' bodies would typically be stored beneath his bed for up to 24 hours before burial in the crawl space. When asked why several bodies were found with plastic bags over their heads or upper torsos, Gacy stated he would cover the victim's head or upper torso with a plastic bag if he noted bleeding from the nose or mouth.
Most victims were buried in Gacy's crawl space where, periodically, he would pour quicklime to hasten the decomposition of the bodies.[163] Gacy stated he had lost count of the number of victims buried in his crawl space and had initially considered stowing bodies in his attic before opting to dispose of his victims off the I-55 bridge into the Des Plaines River.[164] Thus the final five victims—all killed in 1978—were disposed of in this manner because his crawl space was full.[46][165] When asked about Robert Piest, Gacy confessed to strangling the youth at his house that evening, adding that he had been interrupted by a phone call from a business colleague while doing so; he also admitted to having disposed of Piest's body in the Des Plaines river and stated that the reason he had arrived at the Des Plaines police station in a disheveled manner in the early hours of December 13 was that he had been in a minor traffic accident after disposing of Piest's body en route to his appointment with Des Plaines officers.[166] He also confessed to police he had buried the body of John Butkovitch in his garage.[167] To assist officers in their search for the victims buried in his house, Gacy drew a diagram of his basement to show where the bodies were buried.[168]
Gristly stuff.  That's not what this blog is generally about. So on to the music. On this track Sufjan Stevens describes the case in a very impressionistic manner. At the end he throws a surprising twist at us.

Here are the lyrics:
His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's t-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things, rotting fast, in their sleep
Oh, the dead

Twenty-seven people
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed
He kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid
It is an eerie and beautiful song. For many of Sufjan's Christian fans they see this song as an allegory for original sin. By saying I am really just like him the narrator is saying that we all share original sin and as sinners we are all evil in Gods eyes even f we hide our sin from those around us, like Gacy hid the bodies under his house.

I prefer a slightly more secular interpretation. I think this song is a follow up to the Columbia Expostion track earlier in the album. His noting that they were boys who were killed implies potential being destroyed. Echoing the cynicism of the earlier track he compares all of the dreams and potential in his own life that he has abandoned and destroyed. The narrator himself is a serial killer. But like Gacy hid the bodies, the narrator is saving the remains of his dreams as secrets buried away.










Jacksonville/Track Five


The next track is Jacksonville. Here is your clip of the day,  it is another fan video, this one is a dashboard cam driving around Jacksonville, Illinois That shows some of the towns sites and a few places mentioned in the song:



The song is a fairly straightforward story of the town told in the usual Stevens blurred impressionistic lyrics:

 I'm not afraid of the black man running
He's got it right, he's got a better life coming
I don't care what the captain said
I fold it right at the top of my head
I lost my sight and the state packs in
I follow my heart and it leads me right to Jackson

Oh, Keller, oh, oh, oh
She gave us a medal she gave us a map
Oh, Canner Row, oh, oh, oh
If seeing is right, then look where you're at

I'm not afraid of Nichol's Park
I ride the train and I ride it after dark
I'm not afraid to get it right
I turn around and I give it one more try
I said things that I meant to say
The bandstand chairs and the Dewey Day parade
I go out to the golden age
The spirit is right and the spirit doesn't change

Oh, Keller, oh, oh, oh
She gave us mirror she gave us a map
Oh, Canner Row, oh, oh, oh
If seeing is right then look where you're at

Andrew Jackson, all I'm asking
Show us the wheel and give us the wine
Woohoo! Woohoo!
Raise the banner, Jackson hammer
Everyone goes to the capitol line
Woohoo! woohoo!
Colored preacher, nice to meet you!
The spirit is here and the spirit is fine!
Woohoo! Woohoo!
Education, ask the nation
You gave us our sight and the hearing is fine
Woohoo! woohoo!
Andrew Jackson all I'm asking
Give us the wheel and give us the wine 


Jacksonville is a smallish college town in Illinois that also had a history as as stop on the under ground railroad. From Wikipedia:
The town was named in 1825 for future president Andrew Jackson, the commander of American forces at the Battle of New Orleans (1815) and presidential hopeful in 1824.[3][4]
By the time Jacksonville was platted with roads and a town square, the first resident, Alexander Cox, was joined by merchants Joseph Fairfield and George Hackett.[3]
Construction of civic buildings began quickly. Construction of the first college building began in 1829 before Illinois College actually had a faculty or students. The courthouse was built on the square, and eleven lawyers and ten physicians were in practice by 1834. Since Illinois settled from the south toward the north, with the majority of early settlers coming from southern states, there was a time when Jacksonville was the largest town in the state.[3] As late as 1840, Morgan County was the most populous county in Illinois.
The city arranged to be the site of the Illinois School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind.[3]
In 1851, Illinois opened its first state mental hospital in Jacksonville, which was a major employer for the area.[5] The institution, now named the Jacksonville Developmental Center, serves developmentally challenged individuals.[6]
Abraham Lincoln occasionally had legal business in Jacksonville, frequently acting either as co-counsel or opposing counsel with David A. Smith, a Jacksonville resident.[7] In what is now Central Park Plaza, Lincoln delivered a very strong antislavery speech in support of the presidential campaign of John C. Frémont over the course of two hours on September 6, 1856.[8] A mural depicting the event is now painted on the side of a building at the southwest corner of the Park.[9] Jacksonville was a major stopping point on the historic Underground Railroad. An Annual Civil War reenactment celebration is named for Jacksonville resident U.S. Army General Benjamin Grierson.

The song begins with the image of a black man, a slave, running towards freedom on the underground railroad. It name drops many references related to the city before ending with a reference to a local urban legend that the city was named for a black preacher named Jackson, rather than Andrew Jackson. More on the references in the lyrics from Songmeanings.com:

General Comment:Ok, I'm going to try to make this as comprehensive as possible, so it'll be a little repetitive.

In this song specifically, I think the lyrics are meant to be a little ambiguous for the purpose of wordplay.

This first four lines obviously reference the Underground Railroad, supported by some staunch abolitionists in the town i.e. the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who would also serve as the first president of the Illinois College. At the same time, though, the third and fourth lines seem to reference another story - that of Andrew Jackson Smith, a runaway slave and medal of honor recipient from the American Civil War. He carried his regiments colors through heavy fire after their color-man was killed (i.e. despite what the captain said).

Another interesting wordplay in heart in the sixth line. Jacksonville is revered for its rich history for progress, the site of the state's first medical school, and geographically in the center of the state.

The Keller reference most likely references Helen Keller, connecting her to the deaf and blind school in Jacksonville. She was awarded the presidential medal of freedom, and asserted in her acceptance speech that the blind and deaf are not freaks but like any other (maybe a road map).

I simply have no idea on the Cannery Row line. Steinbeck documents the lives of those on Cannery Row in Monterrey in both "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday." The canneries all failed with the collapse of the area's fishing industry in the 50's. Perhaps there is a parallel to the depletion of agricultural resources.

I think "giving it one more try," could possibly refer to the large corrections facility in Jacksonville, despite a small population.

I'm not sure about the Dewey line, but the phrase Golden Age has roots in Greek mythology as an ideal state of utopia.

The second line about Keller is different, saying mirror instead of medal. In her life, Helen Keller wrote two autobiographies, the first called "The World in Which I Live," and second called "Light in my Darkness," a stretch, but possibly a mirror and a map.

The wheel probably does refer to the cheese, but I think it is once again a pun. Jacksonville is also home to the Eli Bridge Company, a maker of ferris wheels.

For Jackson Hammer, I know that Stonewall Jackson was called the hammer of the confederate army. Furthermore, there was an Illinois court case in 1995 entitled Jackson v. Hammer, ruling on non-compete clauses, recovery of attorney fees, and the differences in standards for large and small businesses. Not sure if any of that matters though.

Capital line could relate to Jacksonville's shortly lived shot at the state's capital, or its place as residence to what was formerly capitol records.

The story about the colored preacher is funny: The slave of Thomas Clark was lost in the prairie grass on the way to Diamond grove, until he saw the surveyors laying out what would soon be Jacksonville. He said he was lost and asked how to get to Diamond Grove. They directed him and asked his name. He replied "A. W. Jackson." They replied that they were laying out a town and because he was the first of his race in the area, they would name the town after him. The similarity in names of the boy and the soon to be president probably was the reason for the surveyor's private little joke. Regardless, he was the first black alderman of the town.

For education, Jacksonville is called the "Athens of the West," because it retains such a focus on education with so few people, both now and in history.

These are my best guesses.
manly519on January 25, 2008

This song doesn't move me as much as some of his others so I willl abstain from any major analysis.  My biggest question being: what does Cannery Row have to do with anything? That would fit in more with my Highway 101 segments, but I fail to see the connection here.







A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane But for Very Good Reasons/Track Six



Mary Todd Lincoln 
source Wikipedia
Really, "A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane But for Very Good Reasons" is the reprise at the end of Jacksonville, last weeks post.  It really isn't its own song. It is a brief,  under-a-minute atmospheric piece that Sufjan Stevens titles independently of the previous track. And thus we continue our exploration of Sufjan Stevens epic scale "Illinois" album.

The following short clip has several people commenting on the song. They kind of sum it up.


Who was Mary Todd? Mary Todd was the wife of Abraham Lincoln. She was a raised in Knetucky by a family that were slaveholders. As a young woman, and to escape a troubled relationship with her stepmother, Mary mover to Illinois. While there she met Abe Lincoln and proceeded to marry him. She gave the future president four sons and accompanied him to Washington. Though the term had not yet been termed, she served as First Lady during the Lincoln presidency. During that time it was reported that she suffered frequent migraine headaches and bouts of depression. She was present at Fords Theater when Lincoln was shot and stayed by his side as he died later that evening. Those things alone would be enough to qualify as "very good reason" to go insane. But Mary seemed to have a sort of black cloud hanging over her head. 

It is well recorded that as First Lady she was troubled by frequent migraine headaches as well as depression. Those maladies seem to have continued and intensified after the death of Lincoln. She was not given an automatic pension by the U.S government and had to fight by way of petition to recieve a pension for her support after the presidents death. In addition, she had some private letters included in a book written by a confidante. This she viewed as breach of confidence, possibly contributing to a downward spiral.
In 1871, her youngest son, Tad died. He was followed shortly thereafter by 2 of his brothers. At this point the "very good reasons" really started to win the battle for her mind.

From Wikipedia:

The death of her son Thomas (Tad) in July 1871, following the death of two of her other sons and her husband, led to Mary Lincoln's suffering an overpowering grief and depression.[19] Her surviving son, Robert Lincoln, a rising young Chicago lawyer, was alarmed at his mother's increasingly erratic behavior. In March 1875, during a visit to Jacksonville, Florida, Mary became unshakably convinced that Robert was deathly ill. She traveled to Chicago to see him, but found he was not sick.
In Chicago she told her son that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a "wandering Jew" had taken her pocketbook but would return it later.[19] During her stay in Chicago with her son, Mary spent large amounts of money on items she never used, such as draperies and elaborate dresses; she wore only black after her husband's assassination. She would walk around the city with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats (underskirts). Despite this large amount of money and the $3,000 a year stipend from Congress, Mrs. Lincoln had an irrational fear of poverty. After she nearly jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, her son determined that she should be institutionalized.[19]
On May 20, 1875, he committed her to a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois.[28] Three months after being committed to Bellevue Place, Mary Lincoln devised her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer, James B. Bradwell, and his wife Myra Bradwell, who was not only her friend but a feminist lawyer and fellow spiritualist. She also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times. Soon, the public embarrassments that Robert had hoped to avoid were looming, and his character and motives were in question, as he controlled his mother's finances. The director of Bellevue at Mary's trial had assured the jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility. In the face of potentially damaging publicity, he declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards as she desired.[29]
Mary Lincoln was released into the custody of her sister in Springfield. In 1876 she was declared competent to manage her own affairs. After the court proceedings, Mary Lincoln was so enraged that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered enough laudanum to kill herself, but he realized her intent and gave her a placebo.[19]The earlier committal proceedings had resulted in Mary being profoundly estranged from her son Robert, and they did not reconcile until shortly before her death.[1]
Mrs. Lincoln spent the next four years traveling throughout Europe and took up residence in Pau, France. Her final years were marked by declining health. She suffered from severe cataracts that reduced her eyesight. This condition may have contributed to her increasing susceptibility to falls. In 1879, she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall from a stepladder.[1]

Mary passed away in 1882, putting an end to her madness. Or should I say her supposed madness, as there is some dispute over how much of her "erratic" behavior was the result of mental illness. How much was the result of the patent medicines of the era which her frequent headaches caused her to turn. And the most conspiritorial theory was that it was an attempt by her son to take control of her finances bu exaggerating her symptoms during her trial.

Back to our song. Sufjan Stevens includes this snippet of song because it is nice. He could have probably titled it just about anything but he refrences Mary Todd as she had so many significant events in her life happen in Illinois. And Stevens seems to be reminding us that Illinois is the Land Of Lincoln. More on that subject in the next track







Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!" and Track Eight "One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' for the Pullman/Track Seven




The Chickenmobile
 source Flickr
As someone who spent most of my childhood in 1970's, I was one of the lucky few who did not have parents divorce. So when I listen to "Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!", from the Sufjan Stevens Illinois album, I can't really appreciate the emotions behind the song. When coupled with having never been to Decatur, Illinois there is not much in the song lyrics to grip me tightly. It does make reference to the Lincoln Douglas debates. Which is a subject I find interesting that  occurred near Decatur, but the rest of the song I am just too far removed from to relate to. Here are the lyrics from SongMeanings.Com:

Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her
She took us down to the edge of Decatur
We saw the lion and the kangaroo take her
Down to the river where they caught a wild alligator

Sangamon River, it overflowed
It caused a mudslide on the banks of the operator
Civil War skeletons in their graves
They came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator

The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain
We go riding on the abolition grain train
Steven A. Douglas was a great debater
But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator

Chickenmobile with your rooster tail
I had my fill and I know how bad it feels
Stay awake and watch for the data
No small caterpillar, go congratulate her

Denominator, go Decatur, go Decatur
It's the great I Am
Abominate her, go Decatur, why did we hate her?
It's the great I Am

Denominator, go Decatur, anticipate her
It's the great I Am
Appreciate her, appreciate her
Stand up and thank her

Stand up and thank her
It's the great I Am
Stand up and thank her
It's the great I Am
Stand up and thank her
It's the great I Am
Stand up and thank her 

This song is bit like the earlier song on the album, Jacksonville. It name drops a lot of local color and history. Some of the local color referenced is the chickenmobile, a car decorated to look like a chicken that graces the front of local eatery. He mentions the Caterpillar tractor factory which is located there, the railroads, the river, floods, the Civil War graveyards and the rich history of Lincoln in Illinois.

In the song, the narrator weaves in a yet another story of unattained dreams. Ah...but here's the twist-they were negative dreams. Dreams of hating a step mother and a new place. The lack of attaining those dreams has made the narrator who he is today. A better person than he might otherwise be. His realizes this and is expressing his gratitude via the song. Fairly clever stuff and a catchy melody. The song has a playful rollicking feel that the sing-song lyrics compliment well. This fan clip takes you around Decatur and shows you some of the spots mentioned in the song.



Picking up speed we move through another track. At 11 seconds long "One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' for the Pullman"  is just sort of a silly, name-dropping joke. The Pullman railway cars were designed and built just south of Chicago. And of course railroad cars go Whoo-Hoo. The title and this explanation take longer than the song which you can hear here:



You can purchase the track here:






Chicago/Track Nine




This was the big hit of the album Illinois. It went to number one on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart when the album was released. It also gained a lot of exposure due to it being used for the opening segment of the film Little Miss Sunshine. The song is a semi auto-biographical story of a few road trips made be Steven as an up and coming musician. It talks about experiences and hard times traveling to both Chicago and New York. Being a song from the Illinois album that actually is about a road trip it is particularly suited for coverage in this blog.Here are the lyrics from SongMeanings.Com:

I fell in love again
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
All things know, all things know

We sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

I drove to New York
In the van, with my friend
We slept in parking lots
I don't mind, I don't mind

I was in love with the place
In my mind, in my mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

If I was crying
In the van, with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land

I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

you came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
(I made a lot of mistakes)
All things know, all things know
(I made a lot of mistakes)

You had to find it
(I made a lot of mistakes)
All things go, all things go
(I made a lot of mistakes)

In the fan conversations I read when researching this post a lot is made of the  2nd verse:

We sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

What is meant by we sold our clothes to the state? Many folks take it as an expression of hitting rock bottom. And they are right. There is a certain amount of his fan base who think that this is a reference to Jesus's quote: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." While this is an interesting analysis, I think he is being more literal. 

For me the song continues the themes of unattained dreams that he explores in so many of the other tracks. For someone who wrote a whole album about Illinois I am starting to feel the state has offered the narrator nothing but unattained dreams. But we continue onward. 

I can certainly see the biblical allusions he is making throughout this album. I like that he is subtle about his testifying, leaving options for secular interpretation as well. If there is a biblical reference to be found in this song, rather than the quote about Caesar, it would be to the story of the prodigal son. Who, upon leaving and exploring the world finds that true riches aren't worldly possessions. That's not a literal translation of the parable, but I consider that the motivation for the son returning home in the timeless story.

In traveling to Chicago and then New York, Sufjan is quoted as having said that this was loosely based semi-autobiographically on a few trips he made trying to establish himself as a professional musician. These trips that caused a great change in the narrators world view.The narrator sums it in up in what I think may be the best verse in the song. The music stops as if to emphasize the abrupt change about to occur. Then in acapella verse Stevens sings:
If I was crying
In the van, with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land

He is held by his own mistakes. The land won't give him escape, yet he tries to make that happen. When he says you came to take us, he experiences a cathartic moment. Like being born again, or when Tommy shatters the mirror in the famous rock opera. That moments allows him to let go of those attachments and obsessions and to finally be truly free. I guess that would be the first line of the song: I fell in love again.

Or something like that. 

Anyway, here is a fan video of the tune for you to enjoy as well as a link to download the track from amazon on mp3.









Casimir Pulaski Day/Track Ten



Sufjan Stevens
 via Wikipedia
Continuing onward with our mission of exploring Illinois through the eyes of Sufjan Stevens, we reach track ten, "Casimir Pulaski Day". What is that? I didn't know so I turned to my old research buddy, Wikipedia where I found:
Casimir Pulaski Day is a holiday reserved in Illinois on the first Monday of every March in memory of Casimir Pulaski (March 6, 1745[1] – October 11, 1779), a Revolutionary War cavalry officer born in Poland as Kazimierz Pułaski. He is known for his contributions to the U.S. military in the American Revolution by training its soldiers and cavalry.
The day is celebrated mainly in areas that have large Polish populations, such as Chicago.
The fact that it is a state holiday certainly makes it a candidate for an Illinois album track. Being a Sufjan Stevens song it is really just a loose reference point to build a story around. And being the Illinois album, you have to expect it will be a song of loss and disappointment.

The song is the story of a losing a childhood lover to cancer. There was an attraction in their youth but it moved too far too fast and she ran away. Later they seem to be reconnecting, but it is only because she is dying and ultimately he will lose her again. It is one of the most overtly religious tracks with the narrator confronting and challenging his god at the close of the song. Here are the lyrics from songmeanings.com:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you when I found out
You had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

The narrator reacts to the death of the friend. He snaps and challenges his god. Or as Stevens puts it:"the cardinal hits the window". I had to research that expression but it refers to the spring when cardinals are nest building, if the catch the sight of their reflection in a window they will consider it a competitor and will try to attack it. So our narrator attacks himself, both by questioning his faith as well as his luck at having lost love once finding himself losing it again. "And He takes and He takes and He takes". Like Christ on the cross the narrator seems to be saying "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." So sad.

Here is your fan video of the song, with a download link to follow:



Rock River Valley, Superman, Peoria and Drones/Tracks Eleven to Fourteen


Man Of Steel, Who Will Steal Our Hearts
The eleventh track of the album is called  "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". A short instrumental piece, it has very little to further discuss. The song doesn't explain the predicament or make any sense in the solution. The best guess I can find from poking around online is that the region has been hit hard by declines in manufacturing and has a lot of poverty as a result. What the solution is being offered has to do with that, I couldn't tell you. This image from Wikipedia shows the region:
Rock River Region



It is a peasant enough little scrap of music. Here is your YouTube clip and download link to follow:



Picking up some steam, we come upon one another pretty song: "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts". In a lot of ways it is a love song. There is a bit of a sense of loss at play on this song as on so much of the album. In my opinion, he is saying in his oblique way that heartbreak in his youth over failed summer romances and lost loves have made him a harder man, a man of steel. But he is still a man.  He still has needs and he wants love despite the chance of pain. Here are the lyrics:

Trouble falls in my home
Troubled man, troubled stone
Turn a mountain of lies
Turn a card for my life
Man of Steel, Man of Heart
Tame our ways, if we start
To devise something more
Something halfways

Only a steel man came to recover
If he had run from gold, carry over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another

I took a bus to the lake
Saw the monument face
Yellow tides, golden eyes
Red and white, red and wise
Raise the flag, summer home
Parted hair, part unknown
If I knew what I read
I'll send it half ways

Only a real man can be a lover
If he had hands to lend us all over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another

Took my bags, Illinois
Dreamt the lake took my boy
Man of Steel, Man of Heart
Turn your ear to my part
There are things you have said
Raise the boat, and raise the dead
If you take us away
Still can we say:

Only a steel man can be a lover
If he had hands to tremble all over
We celebrate our sense of each other
We have a lot to give one another
My research on fan sites is that some fans find this song to be a song about Jesus. I think that is a stretch and not worth further analysis by me, but I felt it was worth mentioning in the interests of completeness.Here is an appearance by Sufjan Stevens on the always wonderful KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. Your easy Amazon download link follows.


Moving on we arrive at the track "Prairie Fire That Wanders About". This is a call out to Peoria Illinois. Like a few of the other tracks that were call outs on this album, this song is mostly a list of local references to Peoria. Of course, he HAD to acknowledge the phrase "will in play in Peoria". Honestly though, I have no idea What Stevens is talking about at the beginning of the song. Maybe as you read the lyrics it will make some sense to you:

Peoria! Destroyia!
Infinity! Divinity!

For Lydia! Octavia!
And Jack-of-Trades!
The Cubs! Hooray!

The Opera House
Where Emma sang!
America! Oh will it play?

And Santa Clause!
The Great Parade!
Peoria!
You have it made!

Into the crossfire
Faithfully run
Middle America
One on one
Peoria!
We saddle the fun times



Really just an outro to "Prairie Fire That Wanders About",Sufjan Stevens does give a short snippet its own title: "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze". Truth in advertising here. It is a collection of droning sounds. As far as the Great Godfrey Maze, that is apparently a large corn maze that happens in the town of Godfrey in Southern Illinois near St. Louis. It must have blown Sufjan Stevens mind. With no lyrics to post we take you straight to video and the download link:


Wasps and Zombies/Tracks Fifteen to Eighteen


Predatory Wasp
As we approach the end of Sufjan Stevens Illinois, we have noticed a theme of dissolution and failed dreams. These are generally tempered by hope and redemption in some form. The next track we explore on the album, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" is particularly open for interpretation. It is a story told in reflection, on a cold night a wasp appears on the wall that takes the narrators memories back to an experience at summer camp in childhood. Here are the lyrics from Songmeanings.com:

Thinking outrageously, I write in cursive
I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor
Wearing three layers of coats and leg warmers
I see my own breath on the face of the door

Oh, I am not quite sleeping
Oh, I am fast in bed
There on the wall in the bedroom creeping
I see a wasp with her wings outstretched

North of Savanna we swim in the Palisades
I come out wearing my brother's red hat
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times
He runs washing his face in his hands

Oh, how I meant to tease him
Oh, how I meant no harm
Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him
I see the wasp on the length of my arm

Oh great sights upon this state, hallelu–
Wonders bright, and rivers, lake, hallelu–
Trail of Tears and Horseshoe Lake, hallelu–
Trusting things beyond mistake, hallelu–

We were in love, we were in love
Palisades, Palisades
I can wait, I can wait

I can't explain the state that I'm in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend
Into the car, from the backseat
Oh, admiration in falling asleep
All of my powers, day after day
I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed
Deep in the tower, the prairies below
I can tell you, the telling gets old
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you the day we were born
My friend is gone, he ran away
I can tell you, I love him each day
Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged
I can tell you, I love him each day
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you
The song, on its surface seems to be another story of how intentions like teasing can lead to unexppected consequences. The friend is stung by the wasp, teasing ensues followed by crying followed by a kiss which causes the friend to freak out and run away. Thus we have loss, both of a potential for a loving relationship as well as for the innocence of a kiss. 

The song is full of Christian tie-ins. WASP indicates religion.  Coming out of the water could be symbolic for baptism. The friend is stung seven times. Seven is a recurring symbolic number in the Bible. The turning point in the story is a kiss. Jesus was betrayed by a kiss.

The comments on SongMeanings.com featured a lively debate. Is the narrator Judas, a female, a gay male, Sufjan or a character? Was the kiss innocent or romantic? When I look at the depth of craftsmanship to be found on this album, and I consider his themes of assumptions and disappointments, I  wonder if he could be making a meta statement to this listener, who has followed along to the point and constructed assumptions about the narrator. Perhaps he is making a statement that those assumptions could be flawed. Here's what I mean. If you had been listening with the assumption that the album was narrated by a Christian man, then the kiss becomes a gay kiss and challenges your assumptions. Or if the kiss was made by a woman, then perhaps you have been wrong in assuming the narrator of the album was a man. I'm not sure if I am explaining the notion clearly or whether it is a flawed assumption in itself. As I said when I started exploring this album, many of these songs will require aging and repeated listens to really understand, this seems to be one of them.



Chicago Zombies
After such a personal sound Stevens pulls back yet again for a song that is about the state, "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!". The theme of loss continues as the song is largely a list of things that have faded from glory or passed away. Illinois connections abound and many once prosperous cities have succombed to the industrial decay that has hit the midwest so hard. Stevens personifies these cities as zombies, rising from the dead, To be sustained by the Land of God, which is what he is calling Illinois, in contrast to its more common name Land Of Lincoln. The Land of God is the afterlife, which zombies will never reach.  That would leave these once prosperous towns holding on, but never really dieing at the same time never really living. Yet they are part of the whole, "Hold your tongue and don't divide us." The Land of God emerges as a benediction and a prayer for the state and it "zombies".

Songmeaning.com for lyrics:

I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Ring the bell and call or write us
I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
Logan, Grant, and Ronald Reagan
In the grave with Xylophagan
Do you know the ghost community?
Sound the horn, address the city

(Who will save it? Dedicate it?
Who will praise it? Commemorate it for you?)

We are awakened with the axe
Night of the Living Dead at last
They have begun to shake the dirt
Wiping their shoulders from the earth
I know, I know the nations past
I know, I know they rust at last
They tremble with the nervous thought
Of having been, at last, forgot

I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Ring the bell and call or write us
I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
B-U-D-A! Caledonia!
S-E-C-O-R! Magnolia!
B-I-R-D-S! And Kankakee!
Evansville and Parker City

Speaking their names, they shake the flag
Waking the earth, it lifts and lags
We see a thousand rooms to rest
Helping us taste the bite of death
I know, I know my time has passed
I'm not so young, I'm not so fast
I tremble with the nervous thought
Of having been, at last, forgot

I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Ring the bell and call or write us
I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
Comer and Potato Peelers!
G-R-E-E-N Ridge! Reeders
M-C-V-E-Y! And Horace!
E-N-O-S! Start the chorus

Corn and farms and tombs in Lemmon
Sailor Springs and all things feminine
Centerville and Old Metropolis
Shawneetown, you trade and topple us
I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Hold your tongue and don't divide us
I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!
Land of God, you hold and guide us



To reinforce his benediction, the song ends with Two reprises of sorts that he has given their own titles to. The first is a shout out to a large annual Christian Music festival that is held annually in Bushnell,  Illinois: "Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell".



Lincoln Memorial
The second reprise is "In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth" which is a play on words engraved on the Lincoln Memorial:
IN THIS TEMPLE, AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION, THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS ENSHRINED FOREVER.
In changing the quote he, of course, continues his benediction. He's clever though. Illinois being the land of Lincoln. Lincoln was assassinated. Thus he also an example of the lost hopes that echo again and again though out the album. I can see why the critics loved this album so much. There is plenty to chew on.



Celebrate The Few, Celebrate The New. It Can Only Start With You/Tracks Nineteen to Twenty Two

Building The Tower of Babylon

We approach the end of the album we and come upon the track the "Seers Tower". In this track Sufjan continues as themes of dissolution that that he is carried through the rest of the album. The song title is a play on words seer being a profit while at the same time the Sears Tower is one of the major tourist attractions in the city of Chicago. This is one of the most overtly religious tracks on the album. Here are the lyrics:


In the tower above the earth
There is a view that reaches far
Where we see the universe
I see the fire, I see the end

Seven miles above the earth
There is Emmanuel of mothers
With his sword, with his robe
He comes dividing man from brothers

In the tower above the earth,
We built it for Emmanuel
In the powers of the earth,
We wait until it rails and rails

In the tower above the earth,
We built it for Emmanuel
Oh, my mother, she betrayed us,
But my father loved and bathed us

Still I go to the deepest grave
Where I go to sleep alone

The title of the song is a pun relating Tower of Babylon, the original Seers Tower, and the modern Sears Tower. The Sears Tower is a tribute to commerce and material things. Again and again in the album we find Stevens showing a disdain for material progress as he has found the hollow aftermath of a post-industrial Illinois. As he says "I see fire I see the end" it can reference the biblical Book of Revelations, the Great Chicago fire,  the collapse of the Tower of Babel, or maybe just the end of the album. Again he leaves much open for personal interpretation.

Stevens continues by introducing Emmanuel as the Savior from the mother. I believe he's referring to the mother as being Babylon, whose full title was "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth" which could again be reference to the way modern man prostitutes himself for superficial material objects . In making the statement that Emmanuel will save you from Babylon, he stays consistent with the themes earlier in the album. Once again he sees redemption in the spiritual as the solution to being let down by the material world.  But he is also making a biblical reference here to the turning against the mother with a strong reference to Matthew 10:35:
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35"For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."
This quote talks about how a generation will need to break with the traditions of the past if they wish to embrace Christianity. A parallel likely applies to the State Of Illinois as well. For it to continue as a force on the American scene it youth need to break from the industrial modernizing past. "Oh, my mother, she betrayed us, But my father loved and bathed us" is his conclusion. The worldly comforts of Babylon are temporary and fleeting while a strong spiritual base, in his case his Christian faith in the Father, is what is true and comforting. Yet in the end we all die. Sufjan Stevens, ever the cheerful fellow.



Moving on through the gleeful wonderland that is Sufjan Stevens Illinois, we arrive at what is lyrically the conclusion to the album: "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" (Part I: The Great Frontier – Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)" This is where Stevens reaches the conclusions he has been building towards. Musically the song harkens back to "Come On feel the Illinoise" earlier in the album. Here are the lyrics:

I count the days the Great Frontier
Forgiving, faced the seventh year
I stand in awe of gratefulness
I can and call forgetfulness

And when I, and when I call
The patient, the patient fall
The Spirit, the Carpenter
Invites us to be with her

What have we become America?
Soldiers on the Great Frontier!
Carpenter and Soldier, one on one
It's the battle, volunteer!

Run from yourself
From your friends, from ya-
Run for your life
For your friends, for ya-
America, merica, meri-
Oh Illinois, Illinois, Illi-

The prairie, the frontier
The perfect farm, it's from here
The fortress, the faker, the cornerstone, the baker
The dancer, the fisher, audition and the disher
The boxer, the fetcher
The chewing gum, dreamcatcher

I count the days the Great Frontier
Forgiving, faced the seventh year
I stand and strain to make ends meet
Five Spirits on the Grand Marquee

And when I, and when I call
The patient, the patient fall
The Spirit, the Carpenter
Invites us to be with her

There was a man at the wall
He was grateful for us all
I saw the wise woman sing
She wasn't asking anything
She wasn't asking anything
How she made the nations sing!

What have we become America?
Soldiers on the Great Frontier!

Run from yourself!
From your friends, from ya-
Run for your life!
For your friends, for ya-
America, merica, meri-
Oh Illinois, Illinois, Illi-

The mattress, the floozies
The actress at the movies
The lantern, the lotion
The wind that wakes the ocean
The Standard Edition
The architect's rendition
The fashion, the fevers
The house we got at Sears

Oh, Great Fire of Great Disaster
Oh, Great Heaven, oh, Great Master
Oh, Great Goat, the curse you gave us
Oh, Great Ghost, protect and save us
Oh, Great River, green with envy
Oh, Jane Addams, spirit send thee
Oh, Great Trumpet and the singers
Oh, Great Goodman, King of Swingers
Oh, Great Bears and Bulls, Joe Jackson
Oh, Great Illinois

Given what you lost, are you better off?
Given what you had, has it made you mad?
Celebrate the few, celebrate the new
It can only start with you
The song opens with an appeal to join the spirit, the carpenter and the soldier on the plains. Once again this can be taken literally or symbolically as spirit, carpenter, and soldier are all terms realted to Christ, yet those are also the sorts who settled the Midwest and built the state. After the inroductory appeal, the song takes the sort of list approach that he applied to various cities though the course of the album and applies it to the state. Finally, closing, he asks the questions: ":Given what you lost, are you better off? Given what you had, has it made you mad?" He doesn't answer the questions but ends in a challenge to the the listener, and the people of Illinois: "Celebrate the few, celebrate the new. It can only start with you." Perhaps my favorite line in the album.



"Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few", the next track is just a short reprise and other example of Stevens splitting a song into multiple tracks so he has a place to use a clever title.



Illinois ends with a musical post script and an opportunity for Sufjan Stevens to give us one more long title before we go: "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run" The song itself is very reminiscent of The Black Hawk War earlier in the album, which I still maintain is a shout out to Koyaanisqaatsi as I outlined in my post on the earlier track. Still, it is an entertaining little bit of minimalism.



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