Let me start this review by saying: This is a folk album, NOT a folk-punk album. I bought it thinking it was the latter and within the first 10 seconds of the first song I realized my mistake.
I don't know much about Sufjan Steven's background, but I do know he is a songwriter who made an album called Michigan, and all the songs were about Michigan. This album is called Illinois, and all the songs are about Illinois (although I live in Illinois and the lyrics don't really seem to be about the state at all [though that could be due to my ignorance]).
An easy way to describe his sound is 'Simon and Garfunkle with more instruments and less passionate vocals.' But there are parts that remind me of Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and Broken Social Scene.
The album is put together very nicely (most of the songs lead into the other) and has a flowing feel to it. Various instruments like piano, horns, guitar, and drums are seamlessly blended together in (almost) every song. The biggest flaw in the album are the vocals, which completly lack any sort of passion, energy or attitude. In most of the songs, Stevens just sounds downright sleepy. Also, the end of the songs seem to be mindless filler that just begs you to skip to the next track ("na na na''s, "la la la"'s and "ooo ooo ooo"'s).
Now, let's get on to specifics about the album. The second song is an instrumental called "The Black Hawk War," and it's the first song in which the horns are introduced. It's very grandiose and sets the tone for the rest of the album. "John Wayne Gacey, Jr." attempts to show the human side of the serial killer (if that's not punk rock, I don't know what is). My favorite song on the album is "Decatur" and it has the great line "Stephen A. Douglass was a great debater, but Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator," a simple line completely ridiculing Douglass. The songs continue with their slow, sleepy verses and immensly bright, melodic chorusus until "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts." Its electric guitar-driven intro and chorus teases us into expecting a rocking song, but the verse is just the same slow, sleepy folk (surprisingly, this song lasts 6 minutes, but doesn't feel long). The songs continue in this manner (a female vocalist is introduced but mainly used for background "ahhh"s) until "They Are Night Zombies." This song is really interesting, and the strangely familiar chorus sounds like a classical opera or something. The next song, "Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell" is the string part of "They Are Night Zombies" and is hilarious because of the title. "The Seer's Tower" is the worst song on the album. It is one of the slowest, most boring songs I've ever heard. The focus seems to be on the lyrics (which is rich with biblical references) but after reading and re-reading them I can't seem to make any sense of it. The last song keeps building and building to the point where I said, "Aha! So now it's gonna start rocking (like that Bright Eyes album)" but then just dies down and ends.
This is a very laid back, melllow album with great instrumentation. The vocals are lazy and there is a lot of unneeded filler. But I've listened to this album 4 times now and the weird thing is this: It's over 70 minutes long and the songs are slow as hell, BUT it doesn't feel long. And this is coming from a punk fan.