Last week, Russell Murphy remembered ‘This Bird Has Flown’, the 40th anniversary tribute album to The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’, and shared with us The Yonder Mountain String Band’s version of George Harrison’s ‘Think for Yourself’. Another highly-regarded artist who graced that excellent collection was Sufjan Stevens, who contributed a gorgeous, bright, hypnotic rendition of ‘What Goes On’. So, this week, we follow that chain to Sufjan Stevens’ classic 2005 album ‘Illinois’ and the fluttering beauty of ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’
With 2003’s ‘Michigan’, multi-instrumentalist Stevens announced the famous Fifty States Project, his plan to take a musical journey throughout the United States, using each state to tell personal stories rooted in the places, people and histories along the way. The second, and final, album in the project was the 2005 record ‘Illinois’. Through this critically-acclaimed album, Stevens covered a range of themes, inspired by his research into the state’s history, geography and popular culture. As his song-writing on ‘Illinois’ was becoming more complex and varied, so his lyrics and attention to narrative details were also reaching new heights. ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ is an extraordinary song. Musically, it’s gently insistent finger-picking and gorgeous melody are breath-taking and Stevens’ delicate vocal is full of heart-breaking emotion when he delivers direct lines like: “They were boys // With their cars, summer jobs // Oh my God // Are you one of them?” his voice catching and faltering.
The song takes us into the world of American serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., also known as Killer Clown, and includes many references to actual events and facts about the killer’s life. Tackling such a challenging subject takes a huge amount of sensitivity. Stevens’ understanding and lyrical control is masterful and he finds a sort of sympathy and kinship, not with Gacy’s actions, but with his nature, his struggles, his circumstances. Stevens has explained that we may all be capable of such crimes under certain conditions and pressures and the closing lines are particularly effective: “And in my best behaviour // I am really just like him // Look beneath the floorboards // For the secrets I have hid.” His words resonate long after you’ve finished listening.
Of course, we’re still waiting for 48 more albums celebrating American states. Stevens never really intended to follow through on a project that would take decades to complete if he had genuinely pursued it. Rather, this stroke of marketing genius made people take note of ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois’, two fine albums that deserved all the attention they got. Check out this song, then the rest of the album, and transport yourself over to the American Midwest.
What an extra-ordinary 3 minutes that is!
Maybe one of the best songs ever written.