Unless you experienced it firsthand, Sufjan Stevens‘ “50 States” project probably sounds like a bizarre hoax. And even if you did, you might not feel any different. It wasn’t a hoax, exactly, but a publicity stunt; in 2003 Stevens released an acclaimed record of indie folk, jazz-pop and minimalist compositions titled Greetings from Michigan that comprised a series of reflections on his own childhood in a state where he once lived and avant garde tourism jingles, blended with instrumentals inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Stevens never intended to follow it up with 49 more albums about each of the United States of America, but the idea that he’d take on such an ambitious, absurd undertaking succeeded in stirring up anticipation for that hypothetical and potentially endless series of follow-ups.
Stevens never had any illusions of following through with this marketing campaign, and so it never really came to fruition, though it did yield a second album named for a state: Illinois (or: Come On Feel the Illinoise, as the cover art reads). As a concept, it’s almost unbearably precious, a history and geography lesson about the Land of Lincoln through stories about UFOs and Superman. In practice it’s often a much more emotionally driven album that often touches upon Stevens’ own personal reflections and childhood trauma, like “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a sad but oddly sprightly folk song about a futile attempt to use prayer to cure a child dying of cancer. The tour behind the album found Stevens backed by the “Illinoisemakers,” a band of musicians dressed like cheerleaders which included Annie Clark before we knew her as St. Vincent. Stevens made a spectacle of it, despite making music that at times was defined by an anguished intimacy.
One of those songs, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, is among the darkest he ever wrote. Serial killers aren’t typically among Stevens’ repertoire, because he’s not a member of Cannibal Corpse or Acid Bath, though in the context of Illinois, Gacy’s notorious presence is an apt one. Gacy, who performed as a party clown at hospitals and charitable events, lived in a suburb of Chicago, where—beneath his house—he hid the bodies of 26 of 33 of his victims. All of them were boys or young men, whom he raped, tortured and murdered.
It’s hard to chalk this one up to being Sufjan at his most twee, though the song itself is no more imposing than any of Stevens’ gentlest ballads. There is a sense of unease that permeates it, however, a rare tension that’s scarce in most of Stevens’ best known records. It’s more somber than scary, despite the subject matter, but he treats Gacy and his crimes with a straight-faced seriousness that’s typically reserved for the more personal moments of reflection rather than, say, the Man of Metropolis. It’s a beautiful song about horrible things.
In dedicating three and a half minutes to Gacy on Illinois, however, Stevens does a couple of things. First of all, he seems to suggest that, rightly or wrongly, Gacy and his crimes are every bit as significant to the landscape and history of the state of Illinois as Mary Todd or the Pullman railroad workers. Just as, were this album to be released in 2010 or 2018, the presence of Rahm Emanuel or Rod Blagojevich might have been just as likely. (Well, maybe not, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.)
More importantly, however, Stevens empathizes with Gacy. The song isn’t simply a historical document, nor a sensationalist use of a notorious figure for the sake of musical menace a la Slayer’s “Angel of Death.” In the song’s opening lines, Stevens suggests in few words that he was born into a bad situation: “His father was a drinker, and his mother cried for bed.” And amid his unforgivable crimes, Gacy, ultimately, was just a man, not a monster born from hell but a regular guy who was motivated to do some unbelievably horrific things. “In my best behavior, I am really just like him,” Stevens sings. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”
Stevens isn’t necessarily saying he is really just like Gacy, but more that the things that separate those of us who are driven to commit heinous acts of violence and those of us who simply go about our business without incident is sometimes just a fairly thin set of circumstances or urges. You can’t pick out a serial killer in a crowd just by looking at them, and on a certain level, Stevens is suggesting that there but for the grace of God goes he, himself. Maybe that’s an oversimplification—most of us have filters, self-control and, one would hope, the barest amount of compassion for our fellow human beings to never do something so awful. Stevens is drawing attention to the banality of evil, suggesting that most of us are all essentially the same at our core. And that’s the thing that could keep a person up at night.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.