Sufjan Stevens 

Illinois

Say it with me: SOOF-yahn. Last year you could still get away with mispronouncing the Detroit symphonic-folk songwriter's first name. His previous two records -- the sprawling Greetings from Michigan and the religious, banjo-filled Seven Swans -- were gorgeous works that, in spite of critical praise, never received the nationwide attention they deserved. But after releasing Illinois is a different story. It follows Michigan's semisymphonic path with loads of strings, horns, pianos, and choruses, but this time, great songs are more important than great sounds. Case in point: The older "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head" had a sweet stairstep melody, but its beauty didn't jell as a song the way the largely similar "Come On, Feel the Illinoise" does, as the six-minute run time is broken up by separate, swelling movements of flutes, electric organ, and violins. Quiet, folky songs and instrumental numbers break up the 74-minute run time, and after so many dizzying six- and seven-minute tunes, those interludes are welcome. Still, anyone turned off by the orchestral overreaching of the Polyphonic Spree would be wise to give Stevens' restrained take on the style a shot.

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