Today I am taking the whole family down to Charlottesville for a Christmas supper party with some close friends. I normally love driving down Route 20 through Montpelier and Barboursville, but today I am looking forward to it even more. Because today I have a new companion for the drive, aside from my always lovely wife and kids.
That companion is Sufjan Stevens, who may just be the world’s greatest living musical genius working in the popular idiom. Plus, he plays the banjo. I came to this conclusion without much difficulty after hearing the first eight tracks of Illinois (or, if you prefer the more whimsical cover title, Come On, Feel the Illinoise), which is the second and most recent in Stevens’ ambitious project to release an album for each of the fifty states in the union. Just the very first track — saddled, as are the other songs on the record, with a title too long to bother reproducing here — is so strong in melody and arrangement, so beyond anything I’ve ever heard in the last several years, that I’m glad I listened to it in the car because otherwise I would have had to sit down.
When the revenant came down,
We couldn’t imagine what it was.
In the spirit of three stars.
The alien thing that took its form.
Then to Lebanon, oh God.
And that’s before you get to John Wayne Gacy, Jr. — yes, it’s about the killer — at which I probably would have cried, had I not been driving. Just a guitar and a piano and a song that somehow gives you a split-second of a glimpse at the humanity of someone positively inhuman. And keep in mind this is coming from a hard case who would probably volunteer to pull the switch on someone like that.
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
His command of hooks and the pop idiom doesn’t get in the way of delivering sonic marvels you’ve never heard before. The music is immersive, somehow very familiar but completely new at the same time — like walking down a crowded street and catching a glimpse, out of the very corner of your eye, of a long-lost friend. His lyrics are straightforward and unfettered by the self-conscious preen affected by many of the “new folkie” songwriters, retaining the poetry of a well-turned phrase without the air of superiority that is often a consequence. Spin called him “Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school,” which I think is pretty apt given that he weaves his personal religious thoughts into his songs at times without letting them obscure the craft of songwriting.
Sufjan Stevens is a miracle.
Oh, did I mention we went to see King Kong? A great film, and well worth the approximately fifty bucks it cost us, between the babysitter, tickets, and popcorn.