On his second album of state songs that are cheery enough for chambers of commerce but tender and strange enough for those who find libraries erotic, Sufjan Stevens has grown into one of the best song-makers in indie rock. His idioms are familiar to fans mired in Nick Drake and the quieter moments of Death Cab For Cutie, but at his most musically elaborate, Stevens sounds touched by the same human and magisterial forces he surveys through folky layers of allusions and illusions.
Illinois features songs tagged to people and places linked to the state's lore, but the premise plays like a neat organizing agent more than an end to itself. Opening with an invocation of the revenant coming down over humbled piano, the album gets going with "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!", a song that revisits Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition and then veers to hang out with an apparition of poet Carl Sandburg. Stevens wonders aloud if he is "writing from the heart"—a question answered by the churning warmth of his sounds and sighs. In "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," Stevens takes sad stock of the serial killer's moves, only to conclude, with great compassion, "And in my best behavior / I am really just like him." In "Decatur," he commiserates with the stepmother he schemed to hate as a kid, while plucky banjo and accordion meld into intricate folk figures that seem ready to reconcile.
It's easy to play a spot-the-Illinois-reference game, but it's just as easy to step back and marvel at the songs' musical range and sophistication. With a big background chorus and a band of friends armed with trumpets and strings they can actually play, Illinois drifts through songs and suites without ever stumbling or stomping the same tracks. Some of the choral treatments trade in regressively twee communalism, but Illinois marks a highly developed highpoint for an artist whose maturation from here on out should be a wonder to hear.