Dense clouds of fog hug the pavement as I step into the back alley at 6:12 a.m. I climb into the front seat of my car and map my route through Illinois: I’ll start in Chicago and drive southward for a few hours on I-57, visiting destinations that Sufjan Stevens mentions in his 2005 magnum opus Illinois.
On the album, Stevens interweaves his memories, anecdotes, and history with the state’s, rendering an interpretation of Illinois that is at once objective and deeply personal. Despite having lived in Chicago my entire life, I realized that I didn’t have my own impression of the state. I had only driven through Illinois a handful of times, and I was always either asleep or too absorbed in a book to pay attention to my surroundings. I hoped that listening to Steven’s album while moving through Illinois would help me decode his intertwinement of memory and place, in turn allowing me to create an interpretation of my own.
The piano chords of the opening track, “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois,” reverberate throughout the car as I zip through the sleepy streets. As the piano builds, strings and a flute join in; the track morphs from its delicate beginning into an eclectic mélange of folk, baroque pop, and indie rock. Stevens’s voice coos over the mix, referencing an extraterrestrial sighting from 2000: “When the revenant came down, we couldn’t imagine what it was.” Although he wasn’t there, he places himself in that moment with ethereal grace, blending fact and fiction. Parked alone at a stoplight, I notice how the momentary stillness of the city complements the track, almost as if the revenant is about to come down again. The light flashes green and the stillness is broken as I speed onto Lake Shore Drive.
Minutes later, the album bursts into an upbeat mosaic of horns, vibraphones, choirs, guitars, and drums, recreating the energy of the 1893 World’s Fair on “Come on! Feel the Illinoise! (Part 1: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream).” I drive across the Midway Plaisance on 59th Street—the location of the world fair—as the song transitions into an instrumental interlude featuring a string quartet. Over the early morning haze on the green, I superimpose the world’s first Ferris Wheel and imagine the excitement surrounding it: a small child in a pastel blue dress tugs at her mother’s shirt sleeve; a pair of grandparents stare in skeptical awe at the towering structure. The string interlude hides under the crowd’s boisterous cheers. Suddenly, Stevens’s voice cuts through the noise, cueing the start of the second half of the track. Its sonic opulence pays homage to the magnificent event while also providing a backdrop for the newly-revealed intimacy in Stevens’s narrative. Over the intricate rhythms and arrangements, he declares: “I cried myself to sleep last night.”
Rows of skyscrapers turn into rows of basketball hoop-lined driveways turn into rows of cornfields as I drive south on the Dan Ryan Expressway. The monotonous pastoral landscape envelops me. I see nothing but corn and the occasional silo for miles. Out of nowhere, a 25-foot tall wooden statue of Abe Lincoln appears on the roadside and waves to me. The quirky disruption is complemented by the 6-second long track “One last ‘Whoo-hoo!’ for the Pullman,” a chorus of hoots and hollers courtesy of Stevens and his friends. Like the statue, they pop up in unexpected moments with an upbeat flash of Midwestern charm. Fueled by the cheers, I veer off the highway and head in a new direction, abandoning my route.
Stevens’s supreme achievement on the album is the way it entangles memory and place, balancing concreteness with abstraction to create a veiled sense of emotional vulnerability. His sentiments are articulate and palpable but still feel distant, like one has all of the pieces but is missing the instructions to assemble them. On “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Stevens sings about the death of a lover with both detachment and intimacy. He anchors moments of his relationship to precise yet distant locations: she kisses his neck in a living room at Michael’s house, he prays for her at Tuesday night Bible Study. After her death, on the floor of a bathroom, Stevens cries. I am still, sitting in the car on top of a dirt road sandwiched between two seemingly-infinite cornfields. His solitude strikes me, and I realize that I am entirely alone, for perhaps the first time in my life. Looking for miles in every direction, I see no sign of humanity.
Fifteen minutes later, I haven’t moved. I’ve broken my orthodox practice of listening to the album in order, instead replaying “Casimir Pulaski Day” three times. And as the finger-picked guitar and banjo backdrop begin to fade out, I put my car in gear, letting the album run as I speed down the nameless dirt road back towards the highway. I follow weathered signs for the I-94 and decide to head back home. The skyline emerges in the distance, and I am swallowed by traffic and honking horns. Now in a forced stillness, packed between cars, I hear the opening vibraphones of “Chicago,” the album’s centerpiece. The track, which details a road trip to Chicago, most directly captures Stevens’s philosophy. Finding myself in the same position as the song’s narrator, I am finally able to decode a central truth of the album I’ve listened to for 15 years. The emotional force of the entanglement between place and memory lies in ephemerality: places are always transformed, reframed, and re-experienced. In three words repeated throughout the song, Stevens captures this essence: “All things go. All things go.”
Hailing from the Windy City, Mat Ferraro can usually be found drinking pour-over coffee, making pour-over coffee, or talking about pour-over coffee. Complain about his overuse of semicolons at firstname.lastname@example.org.