2005 was a very eventful year for me. I got engaged in February and married in September. In between, I moved out of the duplex I’d been sharing with two other guys and into a duplex in south Minneapolis that I shared with Becky once we got married. In July, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, the album that defined his career up to this point.
Following his Michigan record, Stevens released Seven Swans – an album of subdued folk songs and spiritually inclined music. He returned to his proposed “50 States Project” with Illinois. Here, like on Michigan, he uses the culture and history of the states as the backdrop for songs that are probably more personal than the listener typically thinks on first listen. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, for example, relates the horrific story of the serial killer who preyed upon young boys. In the final verse, Stevens states that in his own best behavior he is really just like Gacy – hiding his secrets under the “floorboards”. It’s a chilling song and a hauntingly personal admission that sinks deep into the listener. “Chicago” is a light-hearted romp about road-tripping young friends while “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a sad song about a young lover who dies of cancer. The album sprawls across all these topics without feeling too bloated (even though it clocks in a 74 minutes).
The music of Illinois is a natural step forward from that of Michigan. Bigger arrangements and more active participation from a larger group of collaborators. Stevens crafted a “cheerleader” element into the music this time around and utilized a female ensemble for chanting and cheering parts. He also perfected his own falsetto skills and places them front and center on many songs. It quickly become apparent (as if it wasn’t already) that Stevens is an extremely talented songwriter and composer.
Late in 2004, Becky and I were fortunate to see Sufjan Stevens live at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. The tiny dive bar was a great venue for Stevens’ music, though it was obvious that he is a shy performer and was still getting used to playing for adoring fans. We liked the show so much that we vowed to see him again when he came back through. We learned that he was scheduled to play at First Avenue on September 18th, 2005 – the day after our wedding. We decided that flying to New Zealand for our honeymoon could wait until Monday and we trekked from our hotel down to First Ave on Sunday night. The bigger venue complimented the bigger sound and production quite well. Stevens seemed to be more comfortable with performing and he proved that though his songs were written for the the studio, they are born again on stage. It was a phenomenal concert and all the more so because it was the first concert we attended as a married couple. That gives this album an extra special place in my life and on my record shelves.