It’s the great “I am.”

November 9, 2009

I moved to Madison in the summer of 2005, and one of my earliest memories of living here that summer was reading a review of this Illinois-themed album by some indie folk artist that I had never heard of, but who apparently had been around a few years and was now 2/50ths of his way in to doing an album based on each of the states.

It’s as interesting a concept today as it was four years ago, but here at the close of 2009, we’re still only 2/50ths in (well… maybe 2.8/50ths in, if you want to count an album of extras and outtakes and a soundtrack album about a New York road).

Oh, but guess what? Unless your an Illinois or Michigan resident, your state probably isn’t getting a look through Sufjan’s eyes.


What a joker.

Here’s the thing about calling a self-proclaimed premise a joke four years after the last proper state album: it’s probably something you should’ve said during the Illinois blitz.

See, a bunch of good-natured people that still don’t know how to pronounce your first name were easily fooled by such a prodigious/prolific boast, because you were able to release TWENTY-ONE more songs about Illinois after your first album of TWENTY-TWO Illinois songs the year before. But then, later that year, a FIVE-CD Christmas box set.

I mean, by God. We live in a day and age where fans hang on for three, four, five, ten, twenty years for just 10 more songs from their favorite artists. Embarrassment of riches? Maybe. But, see, the thing is… do even the cool, hip indie lot that worshipped at the Sufjan alter in 2005 and 2006 care anymore?

And looking back, how well has the Illinois album aged? It’s not to say there aren’t perennial classics out there — it’s just that every time I go back, there’s fewer and fewer songs I really want to hear. In fact, I’d say the only guaranteed tracks I’ll play anymore are “Jacksonville” and, if I’m particularly wistful about something, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to Get Us!” (which is really money for just the last minute or so).

And the thing about it is… a lot of the “history” contained on the Illinois album seems like it could come from a cursory glance at the Illinois history page on Wikipedia. I know he read a lot more — The Avalanche verified that, but when you break down the first Illinois album, it’s really just a lot of incidental music tied together by loose themes. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is really just about a sick girl. An Illinois slant on it would have been how all school children in that state can’t believe their luck to have a day off when that rolls around. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” is as an appropriate placement on an Illinois album as a song called “Jeffrey Dahmer” would be on a Wisconsin album. But that doesn’t mean it’s hugely state specific — I’m sure someone in Marilyn Manson’s band has a surname of Gacy. Even “Chicago” is really just used because it rhymes with “All things go.” He talks about driving to New York in that song too.

So on that note, how hard is it, really to write more state albums? Obviously the guy has great musical proclivity, so I’m not doubting the fact that he can continue tying chords and melodies together. The fallacy of it all though is that he’ll have to languish years in research. It’s like that “South Park” where Cartman talks about how easy it is to write Christian pop music — you just substitute the “girl”s and “baby”s with “Jesus.” Write a song about a lonely girl in the mountains — you can tie that to tons of states. Basic knowledge of John Wilkes Booth? There’s something for the Maryland album. Something about an alligator? Boom, the Florida album’s first single. Hell you could probably think of 10 songs just on general Wisconsin stereotypes. That’s how easy this truly is.

But you know what? If and when the next state’s album comes out, no one’s going to talk about how ridiculous or general it truly is. That talk won’t start happening until your 15 or so states in and every album contains an incredible amount of songs about loneliness. Because even though it’s four years on from Illinois now, the question on every passing fan’s lips still is “What’s going to be the next album?” And if 2005 and 2006 prove anything — it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what state you want to do. Because people feel like they know more about a state’s history after Sufjan sings about a farmer in a rural town no one outside of that state has heard of.

When I graduated high school in 2001 and was looking to head up to Milwaukee to attend Marquette the following year, the talk on everyone’s lips was where and why people chose to go to college. I had a high school friend that went to Millikin in Decatur. I’ll never forget her friend being abhorred by the decision and breathlessly exclaiming to me, “Decatur? What the hell does she want to go to Decatur for? Where is Decatur? Who goes to Decatur? Who cares about Decatur?!”

I think a lot more people did after summer 2005.

Sufjan Stevens – Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
I feel like I owe some small apology to my general comment about only rudimentary research being done for the whole Illinois album. I know this song dug a little deeper. The chicken-mobile, for instance, is a Decatur thing. But still, it’s still mostly about familial relationships, no? You’re telling me this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Nevada?


  1. “a bunch of good-natured people that still don’t know how to pronounce your first name…”


    I just cannot let that go.

  2. Bu what did you think of BQE? I’ve only heard a couple tracks so far.

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