One of the more interesting consequences of aging is the tendency to lock in tight to your music preferences, most commonly formed over your teenage years into early life.
This has the unfortunate consequence of generating the ‘music of my time is better’ dogma that you hear all too often from many people. The actual music itself doesn’t matter, it’s simply what you hear when you are most receptive that captures your preferences.
This is a shame, because you tend to retreat into listening to the music of your youth and stop opening up to anything new. I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as any, despite an attempt to keep at least somewhat current all the way into my late 40s. But this fell away shortly afterwards and I found myself caught in a musical rut. A rut maybe wider than that of some others, but a rut nonetheless.
I write all this to explain partly why I came to Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” about 14 years after its release, spending that whole time completely unaware of this artist.
This was a waste of 14 years.
Better late, they say, than never and I can thank Jackson in the ‘Cursed Bikes and Coffee’ cafe for playing “Illinois” while I was on my second cup of coffee and in the midst of a lengthy journal write.
For the music, intended as background, took over completely. How could it fail to do so? In Stevens’ work, I heard echoes of so many of my favourite artists all so artfully blended together that I was left almost breathless.
Neil Young, Stereolab, Game Theory, Steve Reich, Love, Big Star, The Beach Boys – these were just the most obvious. But “Illinois” sounded like none of these, it sounds like itself. It’s complete, a glorious blend of folk and baroque pop influences around a number of simply outstanding songs. So outstanding that “Casimir Pulaski Day” asserts itself as the most poignant and sad song ever in its heartbreaking evocation of both young love and young death. But that’s hardly the only gem. The coming of age poem of “Chicago” evokes the uncertainty of striking out on your own in a wholly convincing style. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” would not be out of place on Game Theory’s “Lolita Nation” and shares the fragile grace of much of that older record, albeit refreshed with a lovely dose of Stereolab-style la-la-la counterpoint.
The record weaves themes, songs, sly chamber orchestration, bright choral singing and entrancing melodies throughout, bringing up comparisons to truly synthetic masterpieces such as The Beach Boys’ “Smile”.
So what’s the lesson here? There are two in fact. The first is obvious but so often overlooked or dismissed – the best music belongs to no particular time and is always being made. The second is that choosing to wed yourself to some period or style as the sources of all your listening excludes you from these brand new masterpieces, one of which no doubt is being made right now and simply waits for me to hear it. Hopefully not 14 years into the future.
Lessons I needed to learn.