I tend to hesitate before applying the genius tag to anyone. As a term it gets thrown around way too much ("that new Miley Cyrus song is genius!" - no, it's not. It's catchy. Its hardly genius). I'm not even convinced that it applies to Sufjan Stevens, but back in 2005, for a moment, it did.
Illinois (or: Come on Feel the Illinoise) is as wonderful as it is ambitious. The second in a proposed (and since reneged) series of records on each of the fifty states, Illinois left few stones unturned and is triumphant in its bravado. Make no mistake, Illinois is a big record with big songs, big arrangements, numerous guests and heady themes. It's truly an epic and it works on every level. There's a reason it was universally lauded by critics and liked by everyone who heard it. Was there ever a moment wherein you witnessed someone hear "Chicago" for the first time and immediately not ask about it? It's that kind of song - universal, yet intelligent. The best of both worlds.
Listening to Illinois as a whole statement is an important thing to do as it works best that way. Sure, there are individual tracks that stand on their own, but without those instrumental pieces, you kind of miss the scope of the whole thing. Illinois is like a musical, but a really, really good one, you know?
Sufjan Stevens, for all of the sweeping ambition of Illinois, is one helluva songwriter. Take "John Wayne Gacy Jr." one of the record's quietest moments but also one of it's most effective. It's a powerfully intimate song that finds Stevens retelling the horrible story of the child murdering clown in a succinct and literate way all the while facing the grim facts head on. It's an eerily beautiful song and as unsavory as the topic is, it's handled with grace.
This is Illinois - a detailed, nuanced record with all the bells and whistles. That the bells and whistles don't distract and come off effortless is part of the record's, hell i'll say it- genius. For me personally, some of Stevens' other work has been hit or miss, but Illinois is a total hit. It's an easy record to like and a fantastic record to study. It's equal parts pretty and puzzling and never, ever boring.