This Album Changed My Life: Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise (2005)
Islander’s Jonathan Pearson on how this musical triumph changed his perception of pop
Jonathan Pearson: Come on Feel the Illinoise has the full spectrum of human emotion
I remember the first time I heard the opening piano chords on Concerning the UFO sighting Near Highland, Illinois – I was in my dad’s place in Rochestown, Cork. It was, and still is, a place where a lot of interesting music is listened to and critiqued. Everything about that tune, from the timings to the innovative arrangement, completely changed my perception of what a “pop” album could be like.
The ambition of Illinois is insane. Stevens had a myriad of instrumentalists come up to his tiny flat and record parts. They couldn’t hear the rest of the tune at all, and I’m sure it was quite a chaotic affair. A lot of it wasn’t done to a click track and, to be quite honest, I don’t know how the album became such a triumph but it did.
For me, this album had just the right amount of hooks with just the right amount of experimental orchestrations and arrangements for my twentysomething-year-old self. It probably had just the right amount of delayed teenage angst also, if I’m honest. But despite that, it has remained an album that I love – maybe more than any other.
I love how Stevens, and others such as Beirut, don’t lace their arrangements in reverb. It is raw and you can hear the people playing the instruments. The record is flamboyant, introspective, understated, brash and has big droney intros/outros that would be at home on a Stars of the Lid record. It has absolutely no business being a pop album with its 22 tracks and yet, inexplicably, it is. The absolute lunatic that Stevens is released The Avalanche soon after. This was an album of 21 tracks that didn’t make Illinois. I mean... come on. That’s madness.
Overall, this album has the full spectrum of human emotion, and I will be revisiting Illinois as my good friend for the rest of my days.
Jonathan Pearson is the director of Islander music company (islandermusic.net) and Quiet Lights festival from November 22nd-24th, 2019 (quietlights.net) which shines light on the new wave of Irish folk and traditional talent