Stuff Aesthetic Fascists Like: Of all the singers populating my ears over the years, none has provided more habitual companionship than Sufjan Stevens. His music is a soundtrack to my life, which has a certain fittingness because we were both born in the same year. It is never easy to articulate why one singer becomes a resonant voice over another. But his voice has persisted for me when others have faded or disappeared altogether. For the sake of practicing aesthetic asceticism (try saying that phrase repeatedly), I will feature one of my favorite songs from each of the albums that I return to over and over again. Other songs could be highlighted, but self-denial has to begin somewhere.
Like the self-proclaimed “Spiderman” who climbed Chicago’s Sears Tower with no harness, Sufjan Stevens scales dusty prairies, steel factories, and two hundred years of history in the second installment of his 50 State Project, “ILLINOIS” (2005), a 22-track anthematic tone poem to The Prairie State.
An engrossing musical road trip, “Illinois” takes you through ghost towns, grain mills, hospital rooms, and the City of Broad Shoulders, with guest appearances by a poet, a president, a serial murderer, UFOs, Superman, the goat that cursed the Cubs, and Decatur’s famous Chickenmobile. Sufjan weaves variegated musical styles (jazz, funk, pop, folk, and Rodgers and Hammerstein-like flourishes) and the textures of 25 instruments into a tapestry of persons and places famous, infamous, iconic and anonymous. Invoking the muse of poet Carl Sandburg, “Illinois” ushers in trumpets on parade, string quartets, female choruses and ambient piano scales arranged around Stevens’ emerging falsetto.
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
Thinking outrageously I write in cursive
I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor
Wearing three layers of coats and leg warmers
I see my own breath on the face of the door
Oh I am not quite sleeping
Oh I am fast in bed
There on the wall in the bedroom creeping
I see a wasp with her wings outstretched
North of Savanna we swim in the palisades
I come out wearing my brother’s red hat
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times
He runs washing his face in his hands
Oh how I meant to tease him
Oh how I meant no harm
Touching his back with my hand I kiss him
I see the wasp on the length of my arm
Oh great sights upon this state. Hallelujah!
Wonders bright, and rivers, lake. Hallelujah!
Trail of Tears and Horseshoe Lake. Hallelujah!
Trusting things beyond mistake. Hallelujah!
We were in love. We were in love.
I can wait. I can wait.
Lamb of God, we sound the horn. Hallelujah!
To us your ghost is born. Hallelujah!
I can’t explain the state that I’m in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend
Into the car, from the back seat
Oh admiration in falling asleep
All of my powers, day after day
I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed
Deep in the tower, the prairies below
I can tell you, the telling gets old
(Oh great sights upon this state. Hallelujah!)
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you the day we were born
(Wonders bright, and rivers, lake. Hallelujah!)
My friend is gone, he ran away
I can tell you, I love him each day
(Trail of Tears and Horseshoe Lake. Hallelujah!)
Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged
I can tell you I love him each day
(Trusting things beyond mistake. Hallelujah!)
Terrible sting, terrible storm
I can tell you…
GENIUS: Annotation of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”