Sufjan Stevens / Sept. 16, 2005 / Chicago (Metro)
"We're going to try something we've never tried in this city before," said a modest Sufjan Stevens midway through his set. "The human pyramid."
And with that, he and his band the Illinoisemakers, all dressed like University of Illinois cheerleaders, signaled the drum roll and assumed the position at the front of the stage, much to the delight of the sold-out audience.
Stevens isn't from Illinois, nor is he a cheerleader, but his latest album, "Illinois," serves as an exception on both fronts. The disc is a song cycle inspired by the state and its lore, and while Stevens may rue the day he announced his plan to release an album dedicated to each American state (he's already half-jokingly claimed he's going to skip Texas), he'll no doubt regret even more setting the bar so high for himself. "Illinois" is even better than its predecessor "Michigan," and may be the best record of 2005.
Playing before a crowd that made him and the band feel (in Stevens' words) "like kings and queens," Stevens stuck entirely to his current project, offering gentle folk ruminations on state history and ably tackling the tricky odd-tempo pieces reminiscent of minimalists such as Steve Reich and whimsical acts like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
"The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" impressed, its two halves performed separately, while the Americana groove of "Jacksonville" approached something akin to soul. "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmom" would make a good children's song for grade-school kids well-versed Illinois history.
Then there was the darker side to Stevens. "Casimir Pulaski Day," named for the state holiday celebrating Polish war hero and "Father of American Cavalry," was actually about coming to grips with a friend's death and the inability of man to impede God's will. "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." was even spookier, a haunting account of the notorious serial killer's early days that ended with Stevens' whispered confession that "in my best behavior I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." One can only assume Stevens is dealing in metaphor, lest anyone call the cops.
But the overwhelming feeling of Friday's set, the first of two shows, was one of celebration: of music, of Illinois, of community. When Stevens and the Illinoisemakers started the evening with a song introducing each state, all the regional Great Lakes neighbors -- Indiana, Michigan, Ohio -- drew excited responses from their present representatives.
Yet during the most spirited and upbeat numbers ("The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" and "Chicago" -- saved for last, of course), the audience seemed like a singular whole, which no doubt ultimately proves Stevens' point. At the end of the 50 States project, each detail-rich tribute disc will be just a piece of the puzzle, underscoring the country's unique character as a nation of diverse people and regions united as one. Patriotic? Perhaps. Corny? Maybe. But hopefully by the time Stevens finishes such an ambitious undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize folks will have expanded their purview. At this rate he'll have earned the honor.