Digitization Finds #01: Sufjan Stevens — Illinois

I’m currently backing up / digitizing our entire music collection with somewhere around 25,000 albums total. Some are CD-Rs or DVD-Rs with multiple albums in MP3 or FLAC format. Some are original CDs. There’s even a decent amount of cassettes and vinyls (33, 45, & 78 rpm). This series will share a few highlights of the collection through discussion of some of the more interesting albums of the bunch.

Sufjan Stevens. First name pronounced “soofh-yaan” for those unaware. A Michigan native whose discography as of 2022 is most centered on folk-rock, but often branches off into electronica, indie rock, instrumental tracks with a classical influence, and other genres. Multi-instrumentalist with formal musical training at university (up to an MFA degree). He’s one of the often-overlooked by the mainstream, yet quite cherished in the indie music scene, artists of the the past two decades.

The state of Illinois serves as a general map for exploring a variety of themes, including spirituality, youth, relationships, aging, grieving, and making the most out of whatever situations life gives you. A few instrumental tracks serve as a bridge between portions of the album, helping break up some of the songs involving more depressing themes, with instrumentation helping build a more hopeful feeling even in the most hopeless of scenarios. It’s a cohesive album best listened to from start-to-finish, with the whole being greater than the summation of each individual track.

A fan-created map outlining counties mentioned on this album.

“Chicago”, the most well-known song from Illinois, outlines some of Sufjan Stevens own life experiences, including going to Chicago (from Michigan) with only $20 spending money and having to stay with homeless youth in the city and his move to New York. The general theme is “running away”, whether that involves physically relocation or running away in a more mental / emotional way. The resultant isolation often forces one to confront past mistakes. Reconciliation and self-forgiveness are necessary components of emerging as a better person, but it’s not easy. This conflict is illustrated towards the closing of the song, with Sufjan singing “I made a lot of mistakes” against the choir’s more idealistic lyrics.

Here’s the closing lyrics:

“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)”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”, a song title referring to an actual Illinois holiday honoring a Polish general who served during the American Revolution, takes the listener through a journey of losing a teenage friend / romantic partner to cancer, evoking very specific imagery of the awkwardness of teenage romantic interactions, the odd things you remember after one passes away, and reconciling an untimely death with a possibly spiritual or idealistic worldview.

“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”

It’s an album where the instrumentals stand on their own without overshadowing the lyrics. The lyrics are written in such a way as to appear very personal to Sufjan while having wide applicability to a variety of life circumstances of any given listener. It’s a definite gem of the 2000s period, an often overlooked period of music full of highly creative, unique, top quality albums.

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Aun Collective

We are a game preservationist, archivist, design and writing collective, focusing on multiplayer and massively multiplayer games. Also music preservation!