I can't even remember the last time I was this in love with a whole album - and really loving it as an album, not necessarily as standalone tracks.
This is especially interesting given that I actively avoided Sufjan Stevens in college, as he was someone that all the pretentious "indie music is my thing" students were listening to, and being as he was a dude rather than a lady and his music had not been featured on any of my television shows, he fell outside the borders of my acceptable-music realm and was assumed boring.
I'm not saying it was instant love, either, because it took a few rounds to condition myself to the style. But there was enough to pique my interest in those first few tracks that I kept coming back until I was hooked.
Overall impressions: Going in, I knew it was a concept album - that's why he got it for me; I mentioned wanting to hear more concept albums because the only one I knew (but loved) was "Scarlet's Walk" - and that he most highly recommended #9, "Chicago," but that was it. I'd never listened to anything Sufjan had done and had no idea what to expect,but I was blown away by the sheer amount of concert band instrumentation. Trumpets and woodwinds and non-drumset percussion everywhere! It's almost like the high school band room hired some singers to front for them. Based on the title, I assume I'm meant to be thinking everything is Midwestern (specifically Illinois) themed, so heck yeah, I'm happy to envision the Midwest encapsulated in music form. Also, I still don't know if it's special for this album or how all his work sounds, but I was also surprised by the amount of choir/backing vocals accompaniment, where I had expected it be just one main guy. It sounds like the whole state of Illinois came to help him out at times. I love it.
And now...individual songs! I almost want to hide the titles behind spoiler cuts so you have the same experience I did, but I would think that was dumb if anyone did that for some other CD, so we'll just write it straight, especially since over the past week or two I have actually peeked at about half of them. But I want you to know that I listened to it one last time title-free in order to write down my existing impressions for the rest before I looked at the case and added titles in.
#1: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
This is such a bright, plucky opener with the piano notes that I forget it has lyrics; it reminds me of how the instrumental "The Wandering Kind" opens Josh Groban's "Illumination" album. This is a large part of why I kept listening to the CD when I wasn't sure about the whole thing in the early days - it evokes a lot of nature scenery, with lots of pretty flute trills that make me want to write "whippoorwill."
(eta: legitimately shocked by the title. I never would have guessed that. The only lyrics I ever really heard were "in the spirit of three stars," "incarnation" and "alien thing," which I took to mean alien as in immigrant or simply "strange.")
#2: The Black Hawk War
OK, I did see the title for this one early on, so it's a pretty accurate image. Totally instrumental number, which makes me happy, because it's been a while since I just let band music carry me away.
#3: Come On, Feel The Illinoise!
(Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)
This is the first one that I started playing on repeat, mostly for part 1 - the melody makes me think of a latter-century country social (I DON'T KNOW), and the verses are just sung in a really catchy rhyme scheme/alliterative manner (it is so much fun to sing "typically terrific"). Meanwhile, part 2 is just kind of hypnotic. I kept hearing "the ghost of Carl" and finally put 2 + 2 together with one of the titles that had jumped out the first time I looked at the back cover. "Are you writing from the heart?" is the line that sticks out, but that whole chorus and the way it seems to run on forever before you take a breath is the best. I don't know if it's still a favorite, but I definitely like it.
#4: John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Quiet and slow enough that the lyrics were clear, and they contained super creepy serial killer imagery, so. I love how disturbing it is, though. (He put a cloth on their lips / quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth) Especially since the first time I heard it, I latched onto the childhood imagery in the first verse and later "they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs," and thought it was going to be a nice seasonal tune.
Have to really be in a mood to listen to twangy Southern music - folk, blues, a particular style of jazz? not sure how to classify it - but it definitely evokes Alabama rather than anywhere in Illinois. Interesting break. I also really like the dramatic strings that open & close it.
#6: A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons
I keep wondering why I have no sense-memories for such a significant title, but then I realize it's because it's only 48 seconds long, just a bit of bridge music.
#7: Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
Odd lyrics at first, but a catchy banjo melody that really gets stuck in your head. It somehow always makes me think of New Orleans, though, after the mention of "caught a wild alligator."
#8: One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' for the Pullman
THIS IS A TRACK THAT LITERALLY CONTAINS NOTHING BUT SIX UNNECESSARY SECONDS OF CLAPPING/WHISTLING. WHY. Aggravating sounds; drives me nuts.
All things go, all things go.
Yep, this is definitely a good one, and still one of my favorites. Love the busy music, the catchy chorus, and oh hey, the part where it talks about a road trip really does not hurt.
#10."Casimir Pulaski Day"
Ambling, rambling, comforting in its small-town-evoking simplicity. I always think it's going to be a big letdown after the famed "Chicago," and I'm always surprised when I nod my way along to the plucky banjo melody until the song is over.
(eta: Just took a good, close look at the lyrics, having not previously paid attention to much more than "4-H stone," "Tuesday night at the Bible study," and assorted snippets that make me think of teenagers, and WHAT IS THIS UPSETTING CANCER TRAGEDY?? I think I love it more now, but also ouch)
#11: To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament
Another brief-ish (1:41) instrumental, mostly lonely-sounding trumpet, like a military sendoff.
#12: The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
Combination reflective ballad/rock song about Superman. I don't know why it is so awesome. (I didn't know the title for the longest time, but I liked how I kept hearing "only a steel man" and thinking, "Is this a song about Superman? Normally that would be a dumb question, but I have strong suspicions here." Boom.) I think it is probably how it sounds like a children's chorus when it comes to the backing vocals.
INTERMISSION: because this is as far as I got for the first two weeks before I would want to go back to the beginning again. I wanted to absorb it slowly, since everything was so unfamiliar. My feelings on the subsequent songs aren't all as strong, because once I did get past this point, I also made more liberal use of the track-skip button.
#13: Prairie Fire That Wanders About
Kind of a strange one - I have no idea how the title relates - that sounds like the introduction to something, setting and building up a premise.
#14. A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
See #6, except this one's only 20 seconds and is about as exciting as "conjunction of drones" sounds.
#15. The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
One of the few I don't really have any thoughts on, I guess. It's quiet and pleasant enough to play through, but not exciting.
#16: They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!
True story: the first 5 times I listened to the CD after the first run-through, I actually gave up in the middle of track 10, stopped once for #12, and otherwise would go straight from there to this track because once I realized the creepy chanting spelled out "Illinois," I got way more interested. This is such an eerie song, I thought of nothing but ghosts and abandoned buildings (haunted schools/churches, especially, for some reason) for days on end. I loved listening to it on the way home after dark. But eventually lyrics began to creep in, my suspicions prickled, and with dread I checked the case..." THIS I THE ONE ABOUT ZOMBIES?! ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME. No, god, no, no! Nooooooo!, to go into Michael Scott mode." The amount I hate zombies and think they are dumb and lame and boring cannot be measured, OK?
I have since made my peace with it, mostly by pretending they are not zombies as we have come to know them but more like blurred-focus golems (they have begun to shake the dirt / wiping their shoulders from the earth translates to "still dirt covered" in my brain). It's still fabulously eerie/one of my favorites.
#17: Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell
Whoops, did not even realize this wasn't part of the above. Just another 40 seconds, basically, slowing down to a conclusion. Which is why you have to listen to this in album form and not as random tracks on shuffle.
#18: In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth
A 35-second interlude mostly of quiet vocals, with minimal instrumentation. Forgettable.
#19: The Seers Tower
Very slow, anchored with melancholy piano. The lyrics about Emanuel and "He comes dividing man from brothers" stand out, but not much else does. Sometimes I like it, other times there's excessive religious imagery for my tastes. (says the will-still-identify-as-Catholic-over-any
#20. The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders
Country fair time. At least, that's the imagery in my brain (and at least for part 1; I didn't even realize there was a part 2) since I didn't read past the first three words. Whatever; by this point in the CD I'm thoroughly suffering from fatigue.
#21. Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few
For 47 seconds, which is just about the maximum my ears can passively accept before my brain goes, "wait a minute, nothing is happening."
#22. Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run
Our closing number is another instrumental, but not a great one. Not a whole lot going on - it basically sounds like a bunch of technique practice exercises - but if you focus on the title it does sound sort of like a triumphant exit out of sight.
But it's stil like a breath of fresh air when we automatically roll back to the opening song that - I'm sorry, I still refuse to believe isn't about a jolly ramble through a nature preserve. It's like coming home (to start the journey all over again).
I have thus far actively avoided choosing a favorite, or even attempting to quantify my top half, but I think if you demanded to know...I might rank my favorites as 9, 1, 16, 4, 7, 3, 5, 2, 12, and 10 would be somewhere in there as of tonight but I'm not sure where. Huh. I guess I could have put them on the Music List properly...but no, I prefer it this way. We needed to talk about everything. Or at least, I needed to talk about everything. I'm still in awe of the magic this CD has brought into my life. There is nothing quite like having a transformative music experience.
P.S. OH GOSH, GOTTA KEEP UP WITH THIS TOO.
Top 25 Season 4 Glee Performances: Day 4
10. Some Nights
This one actually beats their last fun. song in terms of being uptempo and a great example of bringing the club together, with nearly everyone getting a featured line (EVEN JOE! I miss Joe). I originally had it even higher on the list, and dropped it when I killed it with overplay, but I'm wondering if I won't regret my hasty decision in the future. Even though it doesn't happen until episode 7, this is the first time they ever really come together as a cohesive New New Directions, and it's magical to watch. (Mostly cohesive, anyway. I see you, Kitty. Also, Unique is absent, so that's hilarious.)
9. Love Song
The happy, wonderful power of female friendship: there's nothing like it. Especially when it features two of my favorite girls (and even though I don't like Santana, her dysfunctional frenemy status with Quinn is my favorite interpersonal relationship Santana has). But wow, could this performance ever have improved with fewer unattractive shirtless guys in the background.
8. Hall of Fame
I've gushed about this song so much in recent times, but I'm going to keep gushing! Thanks to the power of Glee, it goes from a mediocre original to a stirring, inspirational anthem. It makes me amazingly proud of what this group can do when it gets a competiton number right. I love the attitudes and dance moves from all the soloists, but no one owns his part as well as Joe (though Artie comes close). The group choreography in general is just fantastic, really. And then there's Sugar's King Kong moment, which takes the cake.
So much magic in the acting department as Lea Michele manages to channel two entirely different Rachels. You can't decide whether to be impressed about the positive changes in Rachel's life (there are some, really), or have it completely break your heart, but either way? It's neat.
Because it is SHEER CRACKTASTIC CIRCUS FUN, and if you don't feel that way, watch it twice and then tell me you're still resisting it.